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If You are Often Itchy, Beware: The Itch May be More Than Skin Deep

Itching is not normally thought of as a serious condition, but anyone who's had a bout of poison ivy, a bad case of chicken pox or a chronic itch that wouldn't go away knows that itching can be extremely uncomfortable and even debilitating.

Itching, or pruritus as it's known medically, can also signal a more serious issue, particularly if you have ruled out the more common and obvious causes. Typical itchiness can be caused by any number of factors, including:

A chronic itch can feel like a nightmare … if common triggers aren't to blame, see a health care provider to rule out a more serious condition.

  • Sensitivities to chemicals, fragrances and harsh detergents

  • Allergic reactions to drugs

  • Insect bites

  • Sunburn

  • Dry skin

  • Poison ivy and other plants

  • Head lice/scabies

With this type of itching, there may also be a rash involved, but the itching is finite and goes away after exposure to the trigger is stopped.

Many types of skin conditions, including eczema and psoriasis, and infections, such as chicken pox, will also cause intense itching. Again, when the condition is cleared up, the itching should stop.

When Itching May be Serious

If you are often itchy and have ruled out more obvious potential causes, you should be aware of these more serious illnesses that can cause itching that doesn't seem to go away, or that is recurrent.

1. Chronic Kidney Failure: In this condition, the kidneys lose their ability to excrete wastes, concentrate urine, and conserve electrolytes. Itching is a common initial symptom, along with weight loss, fatigue, headache, frequent hiccups, vomiting and nausea.

2. Cancer: Cancer treatments and certain cancers commonly cause itching. Types of cancer that are associated with itching include malignant melanoma, leukemia and lymphoma, cancers of the stomach, pancreas, lung, colon, brain, breast and prostate, as well as cancers that have spread to the skin.

3. Liver Disease: Liver diseases including cirrhosis, primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), and hepatitis C can all cause itching. Although the reasons behind the itching are not known for sure, it's thought that it may be caused by substances accumulating in the blood. Symptoms of liver disease vary, but along with itching can include:

  • Jaundice

  • Fatigue

  • Indigestion

  • Vomiting blood

  • Abdominal pain

  • Nausea

4. Thyroid Disease: Hypothyroidism, a sluggish or "underactive" thyroid, as well as hyperthyroidism, which is an overactive thyroid, and other types of thyroid disease can cause itching. Other symptoms of hypothyroidism include:

  • Fatigue

  • Weight gain

  • Depression

  • High cholesterol

For minor itches, smoothing on a calming lotion can help soothe the skin and the itch. We like Quret Drawing Salve.

Symptoms of hyperthyroidism include:

  • Having trouble sleeping

  • Feeling anxious

  • Irritability

  • Feeling overheated

  • Weight loss (with an increased appetite)

5. Biliary (Bile Duct) Obstruction: This condition occurs when any duct that carries bile from the liver to the gallbladder or from the gallbladder to the small intestine becomes blocked. Itching is associated with this condition, some believe, because of an accumulation of bile acids in the skin. Other symptoms of biliary obstruction include:

  • Jaundice

  • Abdominal pain

  • Fever

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Dark urine and pale-colored stools

6. Autoimmune Disorders: Many autoimmune disorders, in which the immune system attacks its own tissues, are associated with itching. Symptoms vary depending on which part of the body is affected, but along with itching may also include:

  • Fever

  • Pain

  • Jaundice

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Deformed joints

  • Weakness

What to Do if You Itch

If you're suffering from itching caused by an identifiable and non-serious source (such as a mosquito bite or minor allergic reaction to a toiletry), you can use the following steps to soothe your itch. If, however, you have unexplainable itching, or itching that doesn't go away, you should see your health care provider immediately.

  • Try not to scratch the itchy area.

  • Wear loose-fitting, soft clothing.

  • Try taking a lukewarm bath and adding oatmeal or cornstarch, which helps soothe the skin.

  • Apply a calming lotion, such as the incredibly soothing Quret Drawing Salve, to your skin (avoid using any products that contain fragrances, which could irritate the itch).

  • Apply a cold-pack to the itchy area.

  • Avoid excessive heat and humidity.

Recommended Reading


Medline Plus Medical Encyclopedia

American Academy of Dermatology


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