January 4, 2023

Can Skin Cancer Make You Itch?

In some cases, itchiness can be a symptom of skin cancer

Dermatologist checking patient's arm.

As skin cancer affects the largest organ in your body, you might assume that itchiness is a surefire symptom. But that may not always be the case.

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Overall, itchiness (medically known as pruritus) can develop as a symptom of skin cancer, but it will manifest differently depending on the type of cancer. Now, this doesn’t mean you should stress over every single itchy area. There are other signs you should look out for as well.

Plastic surgeon and otolaryngologist Brian Gastman, MD, explains itchiness as a symptom of skin cancer and how to identify it.

Is skin cancer itchy?

There are a lot of reasons why your skin might feel itchy — a pesky mosquito biteeczema or dry, winter skin come to mind as just a few. But in certain cases, it can also be a sign of skin cancer.

Why does this happen?

“Many cancers occur due to chronic inflammation and that chronic inflammation brings in immune cells which release factors, which then cause irritation focused in a certain area,” explains Dr. Gastman. In fact, for this same reason, non-skin-related cancers may also lead to itchiness as a symptom.

Of course, it’s important to know that this is a classic example of how correlation is not the same as causation. In other words, skin cancers won’t always be itchy, but in a lot of cases, it can be one of the symptoms to look out for.

What type of skin cancer is itchy?

“All skin cancers can have an itchiness to them because there’s an inflammatory component,” notes Dr. Gastman. “I wouldn’t say it’s the most common symptom, but almost all skin cancers — from melanoma, squamous cell to basal cell — can have an irritated, itchy component to them.”

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If you feel an itch, the next step would be to look at the area for any other visual symptoms like changes in texture, shape or color.

Here are some ways to identify different types of skin cancers:

  • Melanoma. Dr. Gastman points out the ABCDE (asymmetry, border, color, diameter, evolution) rule of melanoma. Usually, if you’re experiencing itchiness due to melanoma, you’ll see it in the “E” (evolution) stage of it. This means you’ll notice that the mole has been changing in size, shape, color or appearance. He adds that lesions from melanoma are usually less likely to be painful or itchy compared to others. 
  • Squamous cell carcinoma. According to Dr. Gastman, squamous cell carcinoma is more likely to cause lesions that are painful and itchy. Along with this, you’ll see ulcerations (open sores) and bleeding in the itchy areas as well.
  • Basal cell carcinoma. With basal cell carcinoma, you’ll likely see pearly-looking pink areas forming on your skin. It can also cause ulcers that ooze or bleed. “They’re very fleshy looking and red looking,” adds Dr. Gastman.

Symptoms to look out for

Again, an itchy feeling alone isn’t a reason to assume skin cancer. But see a doctor if you also notice any changes in your skin like new spots or moles that are changing over time.

You should also see a healthcare provider and consider getting a full-body skin cancer screening if you’re also experiencing:

  • Inflamed patches of skin.
  • Red spots on your skin, or red spots with rings around them.
  • Lasting open sores that bleed, ooze or crust.
  • Moles that get darker in color or change in texture or size.
  • Intense pain that’s radiating away from the itchy spot.

Moving forward

Keep in mind that these symptoms shouldn’t be observed in a vacuum — take in the whole picture. But at the end of the day, you’re the one seeing your skin every morning, noon and night, so go with your gut if you’re noticing anything out of sorts.

“It’s also important to have a look at your own personal history,” advises Dr. Gastman. Yes, itchiness can be a symptom of skin cancer, but there are other factors to take into account as well.

Some questions your healthcare provider may ask you to get a clearer picture include:

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  1. Do you have a history of skin cancer?
  2. Do you have a family history of skin cancer?
  3. Do you have a large history of sunburns?

It’s also good to remember that certain cancer treatments can cause itchiness. For instance, chemotherapy is known to dry out your skin, which may lead to irritation or itchiness. So, it’s important for you and your healthcare provider to take that into account if necessary.

Finally, it’s likely that if you’re feeling an itch, you’ve scratched it at some point. This could be partially why the spot is changing in color or intensity.

“Sometimes, we don’t know if it’s the chicken or the egg,” illustrates Dr. Gastman. “Is it really the itching that is causing you to scratch, or is the act of scratching making it more irritated?”

This is why it’s best to avoid scratching the area and instead seek medical treatment if the itch is becoming too much to handle. Whether the itch is caused by skin cancer or not, there’s likely a specific way that it needs to be approached so it doesn’t get worse. Scratching or picking at the area can make it more irritated and harder to inspect how it changes over time. “If you’re gonna scratch an area that’s never gonna heal, that’s a problem,” stresses Dr. Gastman.

An itchy area is likely your body trying to tell you something. Whether it’s sounding off the alarm for skin cancer isn’t guaranteed. But if you’re living with a type of skin cancer, it’s good to know what symptoms may be expected and how to move forward.

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