Got an itch?

We all scratch. We all itch. Sometimes. A little bit. That is normal. But when it is repeated and starts affecting our daily lives it is a clear medical problem. Itching (aka “pruritis”) refers to a sensation, sometimes described as tingling or burning, that gives an individual the desire to scratch his or her skin. It may be mild or it may become extremely irritating and uncomfortable.

Common causes include:

  • Insect bites
  • Eczema (a form of allergic skin rash)
  • Dry skin (often linked to eczema)
  • Childhood infections like chickenpox
  • Food allergy
  • Medication allergy
  • Pregnancy
  • Diabetes
  • Psoriasis
  • Urticaria/hives
  • Skin irritants (e.g. wool, soap)
  • Iron deficiency anaemia
  • Mental health issues ranging from anxiety to psychosis

Most causes of itching will become clear on asking for details and examining the skin. It may be necessary to request some tests such as blood sugar (when considering diabetes) and allergy tests. It is sometimes necessary to exclude / remove food groups or several medications, gradually re-introducing items one-at-a-time in order to see if any trigger the itching problem.

Treatments that are often used to relieve itch include antihistamines, steroid creams, and, occasionally, sedatives. Clearly, treating the underlying cause is the most important thing.

If you are taking a new medication, and develop an itch, it is important to see your doctor immediately, and to discontinue the medication (but discuss with your doctor first please) – the itch may be a sign of medication allergy, which can be serious.

Although food allergies are very real, it is likely that they are over-diagnosed and are, in fact, less common than we sometimes think. Food allergy can cause itching, but not often.

There are many causes for itch, ranging from skin conditions, to underlying medical conditions, food and medication allergies, and more. The cause will often be fairly clear but should always be identified in order to avoid treating just the itch and not the underlying cause.