The Unseen Causes for Itchy Skin

Updated on April 22, 2017
Seeker7 profile image

Helen is from Fife, Scotland. She was a registered nurse for many years before becoming a care manager and trainer for health workers.

Persistent itchy skin can be a cause of lost sleep and a disruption of daily life.
Persistent itchy skin can be a cause of lost sleep and a disruption of daily life. | Source

There Are Numerous Reasons for Itchy Skin

Most of us have experienced itchy skin at some point. For the most part, it occurs in a localised area and is caused by a small insect bite or other minor irritant. However, persistent and widespread feelings of itching could be a symptom of a serious underlying condition.

What Exactly Is an Itch?

Itching—the medical term is pruritus—starts when an external stimulus alerts your body that some form of defence might be required. The stimulus could be anything from a tiny fibre to a bug, and it sets off a rapid response. In other words, itching results from one of your body's protective features. When something lands on your skin, there might not be an immediate reaction but as the stimulant brushes across your skin, receptors in the dermis of the skin become activated and respond. The split second reaction is in the form of a nerve impulse that goes from the skin receptors to the cerebral cortex in the brain, and a signal is sent back to cause an itch that we then scratch. The receptors involved in the itch response are the same as those involved in pain responses. Therefore, an itch can be viewed as being in a similar category as that of pain.

However, with some illnesses that may be present, other irritants within the body can cause skin to feel itchy. Mostly, these are toxins or other substances that build up due to a medical condition that may be developing. There are also natural life processes that we go through that can also contribute to feelings of itchy skin.

Skin receptors alert the brain to a stimulus brushing the skin, which will lead to an itching sensation.
Skin receptors alert the brain to a stimulus brushing the skin, which will lead to an itching sensation. | Source
Ways to Stop Scratching
Scratching itchy skin can lead to more itching, damage to the skin, pain, and infection. Here are some tips on how to avoid scratching.
1. When wearing clothes, pinch the skin near to the itch site rather than scratch.
2. Rub or press the area with the palm of your hand.
3. Keep your fingernails short.
4. File your nails. Clipping or cutting can leave ragged edges that tear the skin.
5. Apply a fat-based cream to the itchy skin. This will protect the area if you do scratch.

There are many reasons why our skin becomes itchy, but the cause is not always apparent. There are both environmental and physical factors that will also lead to itchy feelings such as:

  • Age
  • Menopause and pregnancy
  • Medicines
  • Medical conditions, such as liver, kidney, or thyroid problems, diabetes, anemia, or poor circulation.
  • Stress and anxiety

We'll take a brief look at each of these causes and give the main reasons why they may lead to itchy skin.


Elderly people can be very prone to itchy skin. The medical term for this itching is called senile pruritus and can affect the whole body. It isn't clear exactly why this condition develops, but it is thought to relate to hormonal changes, deterioration in skin content, and poorer blood supply to the skin, all of which can result in itching either in a local or widespread area.

Menopause and Pregnancy

Itchy skin can happen on all areas of the body due to the lowering of oestrogen levels. Oestrogen helps the production of body oils and collagen maintenance in the skin. Low collagen and oil production can result in dry and itchy skin.

With pregnancy, there can be a higher risk of itchy skin mainly due to hormonal changes and stretching skin as the baby develops.


The painkiller codeine can cause itchiness—which is sometimes intense—in a few people. This is one of the unfortunate side effects. And it isn't the only medicine that could cause this. Check the leaflet of any medicines, bought or prescribed, you are taking. Antibiotics may also cause itching as can all the other opiates and phenothiazines (used for some mental health conditions, severe nausea/vomiting).

Medical Conditions

General itching of the skin can be a sign of a serious underlying condition such as:

  • Liver or kidney disease—in liver disease, itching of the skin is caused by a build-up of opioid peptides both in the skin and blood. When the kidneys are not working well, there is a build up of toxins in the body, which leads to skin irritation similar to that experienced when the liver is diseased.
  • Iron deficiency anaemia—itching skin could be due to a number of metabolic factors.
  • Thyroid problems—dry, itching skin can be a symptom of thyroid gland problems.
  • Diabetes—itchy skin is also a symptom of the early stages of diabetes. It is caused by high glucose levels in the blood.
  • Poor circulation—itchy skin can be a symptom of poor circulation leading to a condition called stasis dermatitis. This can cause intensely itchy skin. According to research carried out by the American Academy of Dermatology, approximately 15 million Americans over the age of 50 have this condition. Slightly more women are affected than men. Statistics from the National Collaborating Centre for Acute Care in the UK reports that around 25,000 people in the UK die each year due to complications from poor circulation conditions. For example, venous stasis can lead to life-threatening situations such as deep venous thrombosis.


When we are stressed for extended periods of time, the body can have an immune response that can lead to itching skin. High levels of stress activate white blood cells. These cells are always present within the skin, ready to fight off bacteria or other invaders. However, when the body is tense and anxious, these white cells are triggered and become overactive, which can cause itching.

Research carried out at Charite University, in Berlin, and McMaster University, in Canada, found that high levels of stress both cause pre-existing inflammatory skin conditions to flare up and new skin complaints to develop.

Top Tips to Ease Itchy Skin

1. Take warm or cool showers instead of hot and use moisturiser immediately after.
2. Use moisturising cream at least twice a day.
3. Avoid harsh soaps and detergents for personal hygiene and laundry
4. Wear non itchy fabrics such as cotton
5. There are anti-itch creams you can buy and anti-histamines from a pharmacy

Don't Ignore the Symptoms

It goes without saying that continual itching of your skin shouldn't be ignored particularly if the itch is:

  • Persistent and not relieved by over-the-counter creams or antihistamines. Antihistamines block the effect of histamine, a protein produced by the immune system to help prevent infection. However too much histamine can also cause the skin to become irritated.
  • Severe, particularly if it interferes with sleep and daily routines.
  • Accompanied by a rash.
  • Accompanied by a discoloured are of the skin, which may bleed for no obvious reason.
  • Painful and the area becomes swollen.

The majority of skin itches are not serious and usually have a mundane cause. However, as we have seen, the body can produce such symptoms to warn us that a more serious condition might be involved. If you have any concerns or see any other symptoms, speak to your doctor.

The body is very good at alerting us to situations that might be detrimental to our health. It's up to us to start listening to the signals our bodies are giving us and to act on them.

© 2012 Helen Murphy Howell


Submit a Comment

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 2 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi aesta1, many thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the hub.

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 2 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Carrie Lee Night - loved the comment!!!!:)

  • aesta1 profile image

    Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    You have covered most of the things I want to know about itchy skin. The skin is the body's first defence so it is important to take care of it.

  • carrie Lee Night profile image

    Kept private 2 years ago from Northeast United States

    Thank you for breaking down the itch. I think you just stratched the surface of this one :) Great hub ! :)

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 3 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Jenny30 many thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed the hub.

  • Jenny30 profile image

    Jennifer 3 years ago from Canada

    great informative hub!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi jantamaya (I love the name!!),

    Many thanks for stopping by - and for the follow - glad that you enjoyed the hub. Thanks also for the vote up and the share - greatly appreciated!!

  • jantamaya profile image

    Maria Janta-Cooper 5 years ago from UK

    Very interesting and itchy skin described in detail. A perfect article about this condition. Great job! Voted up and shared, of course.

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi unknown spy - and thank you very much for the visit and for the lovely comment - always appreciated!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Rosemay, lovely to hear from you as always.

    That's really interesting about your gall stones. I had mind removed years ago but I can't remember if I had itchy skin or not with it? But I have heard a few people saying that they did get very itchy before they had to have their gall bladders removed. Also one girl I know, who was very itchy neck and arms had a cyst on her liver but didn't know anything about it, it was the itching that alerted her doctor to take a blood test.

    I will certainly do one on dry skin as this is also a problem that affects so many of us. Many thanks again Rosemay!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    LMAO!!! Audrey girl, you cheer me up every time I read one of your wonderful comments!!!

    Maybe you could start up a new business - designer rubber come evening gloves!! Remember, you'll have to have a cigarette holder while smoking and keep scratching to a minimum when wearing the evening rubber - that means no scratching the butt when in company!!!

    I'm okay with rubber gloves thankfully, but as I was saying to T12345, it's the washing up powder/liquid that does it for me! You set stuff that says kind to skin and non allergic but most of it is just rubbish. I did manage to get one eventually and the itchyness is not that bad most of the time!!

  • unknown spy profile image

    IAmForbidden 5 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

    thank you so much for this interesting article.

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi teaches12345, now that's very interesting about your husband. Myself and two of my sisters also have allergies to detergents. We also all started off with itching skin and it wasn't until many months later that we developed a rash. We just had to elliminate items in the house and very soon caught on that it was the washing powder!

  • Rosemay50 profile image

    Rosemary Sadler 5 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

    I can relate to this topic, I had an itchy right shoulder for months, it never occurred to me to mention it to the doctor, seemed so silly. But when I started having very bad pains he had me in hospital for gallstone surgery within two days and told me that the itchy shoulder had been a warning. So yes if an itch continues get it checked out.

    I too would love one on dry skin when you find the time :))

    Awesome, useful and interesting.

  • akirchner profile image

    Audrey Kirchner 5 years ago from Washington

    Helen--now there's a thought--maybe I could get rubber gloves to go with all my outfits~ except the rubber bugs my skin even more. I hate it too as any kind of cleaning products make it flare up instantly--or if I use vinegar instead--same deal. Crazy---I probably should start looking for evening gloves~ I imagine I could get them to match my outfits as well---oh I drag on my long cigarette as well~

  • teaches12345 profile image

    Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

    Great hub topic and so well covered. Years ago, my husband developed an itch and then a rash from using perfumed laundry detergent. We have to use the "all-free" soaps and detergents so that he is comfortable. Voted up!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Audrey, LOL!!!! I love your jokes you always make me laugh!!!!

    My sister had childhood eczema on her hands and upper arms it use to drive her nuts and interestingly like you it was only during certain seasons - very hot weather and very cold. But people use to stare at her hands when they had flared up so she took to wearing gloves all the time. However, by the time she had hit her young teens it had gone!

    I agree about the liver. This organ does so much for us that the affects of it not being healthy must come out in physical signs of the body.

    I'd love to do one on dry skin - I'll give it a bash asap!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Gypsy, as always many thanks for stopping by - I 've known a few people who did get itching skin before exams or before things like a job interview!!!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi ausmedus, thank you and glad that you enjoyed the hub!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Frank as always - a huge thank you!

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    Hi Heather many thanks for stopping by and glad that the hub has helped in some way. I'm also glad about your new doctor - some don't take this issue serious and I have seen patients in tears of frustration and being exhausted because of itchy skin!

  • akirchner profile image

    Audrey Kirchner 5 years ago from Washington

    Helen--great article about a very "touchy" subject~ Or one that can really get "under your skin." ha ha--Seriously, I don't think there is anything worse than itching skin! I personally have eczema but only in a couple of spots. It flares up at different times of the year and because of where we live---ultra dry climate--it is just horrible. It of course has to be on my HANDS which I need to use for everything.

    I do think as well that liver disease can also be a primary cause of itching skin.

    Could you do one on dry skin? I'm starting to look like a lizard living here in the high mountain desert and if I'm not careful, someone's going to come along and offer to make a purse and a pair of shoes out of me~

  • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

    Gypsy Rose Lee 5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

    Thanks for sharing this informative and useful hub. I do get a case of the itches when I get nervous. Passing it on.

  • Frank Atanacio profile image

    Frank Atanacio 5 years ago from Shelton

    another very good awareness hub Seeker these are so useful.. thanks for the share :)

  • Heather63 profile image

    Heather Adams 5 years ago from Connecticut, USA

    Hi Helen - this hub speaks to me for sure. I've been dealing with "itch issues" for a variety of reasons. In fact, I finally just got some help from my new doctor about it. Your explanations and advice gave me some new info to work with - thanks for the hub!