Do You Itch? Know the Signs of an Underlying Medical Problem

Dry skin is usually to blame, but not always
man itching skin

There’s no feeling more urgent and frustrating like the need to scratch an itch — especially if it’s in a spot you can’t reach. And to add even more discomfort, it feels like the more you scratch, the more your skin itches. What gives?

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Usually, the culprit behind the itchy skin mystery is not so threatening: dry skin.

While dry skin is most apparent in the winter, aging also has an effect. As we get older, hormone levels change and skin becomes more thin and dry. However, caring for your skin and using moisturizers regularly can help offset these effects.

In other cases, itch can signal other undiagnosed medical issues that need a doctor’s attention.

Dermatologist Shilpi Khetarpal, MD, says, “Usually, the problem is traced to dry skin, however reactions to medications and other underlying conditions can also cause itching,” she says.

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“It’s a symptom you don’t want to ignore, especially if it continues for an extended period of time.”

How to ease itchy, dry skin

Dry skin is the most common culprit for itch. Here’s what can strip your skin of moisture, and what to do to soothe your skin:

  • Winter air, inside and out. A drop in temperature and humidity can leave skin parched, while indoor heating can strip it of even more moisture.
    Tip: To help skin bounce back, use a humidifier at home set at 50% or higher.
  • Hot showers. While steamy showers can temporarily soothe skin, they actually end up drying skin out more quickly.
    Tip: Switch to quick showers with lukewarm water, rather than hot.
  • The wrong soap. Some soaps are harsh and strip the skin of all natural moisture. Sounds pleasant, doesn’t it?
    Tip: Read labels carefully and choose a mild, fragrance-free soap that moisturizes as it cleanses.
  • Too much towel action. Vigorous toweling off after showering can strip the skin and increase dryness.
    Tip: After a shower, pat dry instead of rubbing the skin.
  • Mediocre moisturizers. Use moisturizer after washing, but choose wisely. Avoid lotions containing fragrance, as they can dry out skin.
    Tip: Go for fragrance-free lotions containing ceramide, a molecule that traps water in the skin to restore the skin barrier.
  • Harsh detergents. Fragrance in laundry detergents and fabric softeners as fragrance can irritate dry skin.
    Tip: Look for free and clear laundry products.

How to decipher your itch

If you wonder what’s causing your itch, here are some symptoms to watch for:

  • Dry skin. Your skin feels dry and itchy and appears flaky. Moisturizers help ease the itch, even if relief is temporary. 
  • Reactions to medications. If you’ve started a new medication, watch for an itch that comes with a skin rash.
  • Skin conditions, like eczema and hives. Itching will usually affect specific areas, and you may see redness, bumps or blisters on your skin.
  • An underlying illness. Itching typically involves your whole body, and your skin generally looks normal.

Do you suspect an underlying illness?

Conditions that may cause itching are varied and include liver disease, kidney failure, iron deficiency anemia, thyroid problems, and even certain cancers in rare cases (leukemia, lymphoma).

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In these cases, itching will typically affect your whole body while your skin appears normal. If you think an underlying medical problem could be involved with your itching, call your doctor. Treatment of the underlying illness will improve the itching.

When to see your doctor

In general, your itchy skin should improve within weeks if you follow simple skin care steps.

“If these changes do not bring relief and are distracting you from your daily routines or affecting your sleep, you should see your dermatologist,” Dr. Khetarpal says. When skin is very dry, it may require a prescription ointment or cream, she says.

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