Itch (cont.)

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How is the cause of itching diagnosed?

As with any condition, a careful medical history and physical examination will suggest to your doctor the particular diagnostic tests that may be needed to determine the cause of itching. Some common causes like dry skin or sunburn may be obvious, while causes such as chronic systemic diseases or conditions may require blood or imaging tests to identify. If a skin condition is responsible for the itch, sometimes a scraping or biopsy may be performed to identify the condition. Nevertheless, many common rashes and skin ailments have a characteristic appearance that may suggest the correct diagnosis.

Should I scratch the itch?

Itching usually prompts scratching, which can sometimes lead to a vicious itch-scratch cycle. Scratching can initially feel satisfying, but prolonged scratching just leaves you with irritated skin that can still itch and often worsens the itching itself. Since scratching provides only temporary relief and doesn't promote healing of the underlying problem, it is best to avoid scratching if at all possible. If scratching breaks open the skin, bacterial infection can set in. This is known as secondary infection. And if scratching continues for many months or years, the area that is scratched may develop thickened skin (lichenification) or pigmentation that darkens the area.

The best way to allow irritated skin to heal is to stop scratching it. However, willpower often is not enough since the urge to scratch can be compelling. The following sections discuss some general measures and home remedies to help control itch, regardless of the cause.

What are topical itch treatments? Are there any home remedies for itching?

Topical itch treatments, those used on the skin, include cold applications, creams, and lotions.

Cold applications: Because cold and itch travel along the same nerve fibers, the use of cold can "jam the circuits" and deaden itch. Methods of applying cold include the following:

  • Cool water, either by running tap water over the affected area or placing a cold clean washcloth on the skin
  • Cool showers
  • A cool bath; products that contain colloidal oatmeal are available over the counter as an itch relief bath
  • Ice packs, either the commercially available type or ice cubes in a plastic bag

Hot water (in the shower, for instance) feels good temporarily, but it can leave you feeling even itchier later. Therefore, the use of hot water is not recommended.

Anti-itch creams and lotions: Look for over-the-counter (OTC) remedies with these ingredients:

  • Camphor
  • Menthol
  • Phenol
  • Pramoxine
  • Diphenhydramine
  • Benzocaine (or one of the other "caine" anesthetics)

You can apply these products over and over - every few minutes if needed. These preparations help numb the nerve endings and stop you from a frenzy of scratching, which leaves the skin raw, sore, and even itchier.

Although hydrocortisone-containing creams and lotions are often promoted as itch reducers, this ingredient only helps an itch that is caused by a rash responsive to cortisone, such as eczema and seborrhea. Since OTC hydrocortisone-containing creams and lotions are weak (even so-called "maximum-strength" products contain only 1%), they aren't too helpful for itch even in responsive conditions. When itching is caused by irritations of other sorts (insect bites, for instance), hydrocortisone doesn't help much at all. If you use hydrocortisone for 10 days and experience no improvement, you should see a physician to help determine the cause of your itch.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/27/2014

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Itching - Treatments Question: What treatment did you receive for your itching?
Itching - Cause Question: What was the cause of your itching?
Itching - Associated Symptoms Question: In addition to itching, what other signs or symptoms did you experience?
Itching - Scratching Prevention Question: How do you keep from scratching an itch? Please share helpful tips and suggestions.

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