Pruritus, itchy skin, stems from the Latin word "prurire" meaning "to itch." Itchy skin is the most common complaint of any skin condition. The most common cause is dry skin. Commonly this is seen in people residing in cooler climates during the winter season. It is often referred to as the "winter itch." Most likely, this is due to central heating, as well as air circulation systems that dry out the skin. Itching also is seen with frequent bathing and the use of hot water and harsh soaps. With sun damage and aging, the skin has less lubrication with a decreased ability to hold moisture. Older people subsequently have more problems with itching.
The symptoms of "itch" may be quite confusing. There are many instances where itch is related to more than dry skin. One needs to self examine his or her body, looking at all areas of involvement such as between the fingers, toes, and breast region. If a person itches in these areas and other people in the household have a similar itch, this may suggest scabies. Scabies is an insect infestation of the skin. This is contagious and you must see your physician for treatment.
Various medications or medical conditions may also contribute to itching. It is important to consult your physician if this is an ongoing and unremitting process.
The first and easiest way to approach itch is to identify the cause or exacerbating factors. For example, itch is more common in cooler climates with low humidity; therefore, a humidifier may be very helpful. Knowing that dry skin is the most common cause, the following may also be helpful.
Bathing: Take brief lukewarm showers and not baths. Do not shower more than once daily. Hot water, long showers, and baths rid the skin of its natural protective oils. If you must take a bath, a lukewarm tub-bath is acceptable, particularly if you add bath oil to the water. Remember, a quick cool shower, using no soap, is preferable to a long hot soapy one.
Cleansing: Deodorant soaps and detergents remove the skin's natural protective oils leaving it dry and irritated. Clear water alone will remove dust, sweat, and grime that accumulates. If cleansing is necessary, use a mild moisturizing or glycerin soap. Use the soap only in the odor-bearing areas, for example, under the arms and in the groin. It is essential to rinse these areas thoroughly to remove all traces of soap as this too can cause irritation. Finally, avoid scrubbing with a washcloth or loofah as this will remove the natural protective oils and irritate the skin.
Lubrication: Immediately after showering and towel drying, while the skin is still damp, moisturizers should be applied. Ideally, moisturizers should be applied twice daily. If a rash is present, a topical non-steroid anti-inflammatory lotion or cortisone cream is used beforethe moisturizing cream or lotion. Generally speaking, the thicker the moisturizer, the more effective it is for severely dry skin. Moisturizing creams or lotions are preferred over oils to moisturize the skin. Lastly, avoid moisturizers with strong perfume smells, as this is a source for irritation to many people.
- Avoid bubble baths.
- Do not allow the furnace or car heater to blow directly on your skin. The hot dry air can make your condition worse.
- If you live in a dry climate, consider a humidifier or vaporizer in your bedroom. If you have baseboard heating, try a large pan of water next to your bed.
- Avoid applications of alcohol, astringents, drying lotions or powders to your skin. They can be overly drying.
- Avoid hot tubs or spas. The hot chlorinated water will strip away every bit of natural oil from your skin. It may be soothing at the time, but can make the symptoms worse later.
Finally, a counter-stimulant such as a mentholated cream or lotion is very soothing to the skin. It is important to understand that this is a recurrent condition. Itch symptoms may return without daily care.
Successful treatment of itching skin requires daily maintenance. If your skin does not clear with conservative measures, you should consult your dermatologist, as itchy skin can be the first sign of other medical conditions.