It's an uncomfortable sensation—a sudden tickle or prickle that begs for you to scratch. And sometimes, itchy skin is accompanied by rashes or patches that you'd rather not show the world. We spoke to three board-certified dermatologists about possible sources of itchy skin—and what exactly you can and should do about it.
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All of the professionals we interviewed agree: Dry skin is the leading cause of itchiness. Avoid this, particularly during winter or in areas with low humidity, by keeping your skin hydrated. "Avoid long, hot baths or showers," advises Dr. Dina Strachan, MD, Director of Aglow Dermatology in New York City. "Use a moisturizing cleanser. Apply moisturizer after bathing." Another dermatologist, Margaret E. Parsons, MD, FAAD, Dermatology Consultants of Sacramento, specifically recommends Eucerin, Cetaphil, and CeraVe, and for more sensitive skin, Vanicream and non-irritating emollients such as petroleum jelly (Vaseline), Aquaphor, and even coconut oil and shea butter. "There are some over-the-counter products that can relieve itch, including products with pramoxine or menthol," adds Bruce A. Brod, MD, FAAD Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania, Perelman School of Medicine.
There's atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema (dry, rashy skin), seborrheic dermatitis (patches mainly on the scalp and possibly ears and eyebrows), and contact dermatitis (triggered, as the name implies, when the skin comes in contact with an irritant or allergen, which can be anything from skin and haircare products to fabric to poison ivy). "I always review if there are any new clothes, soaps, hair products, foods, travel, or anything else new in someone's life when they have a skin issue," Dr. Parsons, who is also the Associate Clinical Professor at UC Davis, Department of Dermatology, tells us. "Often people say, 'It's all the same,' and we have to remember we can acquire sensitivities or allergies, or a product may have had ingredients changed."
She adds that it can take two months for some itches to calm down because of skin's "memory cells" and cautions people with sensitive skin to avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets and reach for perfume- and dye-free laundry products. In clothing, opt for natural, non-irritating fibers: cotton, silk, linen, wool, and bamboo. To temporarily treat these issues, Dr. Parsons says you can take antihistamines, such as the more sedating diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or the prescription hydroxyzine, cetirizine (Zyrtec), loratadine (Claritin), fexofenadine (Allegra), or levocetirizine (Xyzal). "For more notable eczema, topical corticosteroid creams or ointments are often prescribed," she adds. "There are also some non-steroid prescription topicals for those with persistent skin concerns."
It's an unpleasant thought, but there's a chance your crawling skin is due to a crawling or flying creature. You're probably all too familiar with mosquito and spider bites from your youth or from time spent in the garden. Insect-related or otherwise, pay close attention to any sudden, severe itch and hives. "If someone has any trouble breathing or lip swelling, that of course would be of great concern and needs to be promptly evaluated, possibly at the emergency room if severe," Dr. Parsons advises.
Less Common Causes
Though not as likely as the aforementioned causes, itchy skin could also be a sign of an internal condition such as diabetes, thyroid disease, anemia, kidney or liver disease, or even cancer, say our pros. "With these medical conditions, there is usually other things going on with general health such as fatigue," Dr. Parsons explains. That's why anyone experiencing an itch that just won't quit should make an appointment with a board-certified dermatologist. "If the itch is due to a skin condition, then treating the underlying skin condition can help," Dr. Brod adds. "Itch is a complex issue and should be carefully evaluated by a medical professional."