Causes of itchy skin at night

Itching at night is a condition referred to as nocturnal pruritus. Stop itching at night by staying away from items or situations that cause itching, keeping skin moisturized, avoiding stress, using allergy medication, and employing other strategies.
Itching at night is a condition referred to as nocturnal pruritus. Stop itching at night by staying away from items or situations that cause itching, keeping skin moisturized, avoiding stress, using allergy medication, and employing other strategies.

If you always feel itchy at night, you may have a condition referred to as nocturnal pruritus. This condition has many causes. At times, it's due to dry, cracked, or irritated skin. It could also point toward a more serious health condition. Itchy skin can be localized on a specific area of your body such as your scalp, arm, or leg, or your whole body might itch

Sometimes itchy skin at night can be severe or last more than six weeks. This is called chronic pruritus and it can greatly affect the quality of your life. Nocturnal pruritus not only interrupts your sleep but can also cause anxiety or depression. Also, long-term itching and scratching may worsen the condition which can then cause skin injury, infection, or scarring.

If you're wondering "how do I stop uncontrollable itching?" read on to find out.

Some of the many causes of itchy skin include:

Skin conditionsThe most common causes of itchiness are dry skin (xerosis), eczema (dermatitis), and psoriasis.

Nerve disorders. Some disorders like multiple sclerosis can also cause itchy skin.

Psychiatric conditions. You might feel itchy if you have anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or depression.

Bugs and parasites. If you’ve been bitten by a mosquito before, you know it can be itchy. But this kind of itch tends to go away on its own in just a few days. Other bugs, like scabies mites, can live on your skin and cause nighttime itchiness. You may also have bites from bed bugs or lice.

You may also have a condition called swimmer’s itch, which is caused by parasites that live in bodies of water, like ponds and lakes. These parasites burrow under your skin while you’re in the water, leaving tiny red spots on areas not covered by your swimsuit. Sometimes they may cause intense itching from hives and blisters.

Internal diseases. If you're itching all over your body, it may be a symptom of an underlying disease, such as:

Irritation and allergic reactions. Some allergic reactions will cause a rash and uncontrollable itching. You may not know it, but your skin could be sensitive to certain materials or products, like nickel. Some of the materials that contain nickel are:

  • Jewelry
  • Eyeglass frames
  • Belt buckles
  • Zippers

You could also be allergic to nail polish, fragrances, shampoos, or latex. These allergies can all cause itching 

Why does itching get worse at night?

It is possible that your nighttime itching is tied to your body’s circadian rhythms — your brain-controlled sleep and wake cycle that repeats every 24 hours. These rhythms affect your hunger, body temperature, and hormonal activity as well as how you sleep and wake up.

As you approach bedtime, your body produces more heat and increases blood flow to your skin. This may cause nighttime itching. Your skin also loses some water at night, which may result in dryness and itchiness.

Your body also releases cytokines at night, which are immune system proteins that cause inflammation. They can cause itching or worsen already existing itching. In addition, your body’s production of corticosteroids which prevents inflammation decreases at night.

How to stop uncontrollable itching at night

The best way to figure out what will work for your itching is to first figure out what’s causing it. But there are several ways to help relieve yourself from the discomfort:

Stay away from items or situations that cause itching. First, try to identify what causes your symptoms so you can avoid them. The causes could be anything from the material of your clothes to an over-heated room or exposure to a certain product.

Keep your skin moisturized. Dry skin can be itchy. If staying hydrated doesn’t help you avoid dry skin, consider using a hypoallergenic and fragrance-free moisturizer. Ask your doctor what works for your skin type before buying moisturizing creams.

Clean and treat your scalp. If you can’t stop scratching your head, try over-the-counter medicated shampoos containing ketoconazole, selenium sulfide, or coal tar. You may need to try several products before finding the right one. Your doctor can help by providing recommendations.

Reduce stress or anxiety. While it sounds unlikely, stress and anxiety are known to worsen itching. Try interventions like counseling or behavior modification therapy. Meditation can also help you reduce anxiety.

Consider using oral allergy medicine. If your itching keeps you awake at night, some over-the-counter antihistamines — such as diphenhydramine — can help you fall asleep. It may come in handy before bedtime. But you shouldn't depend on this kind of medication to fall asleep. A more long-lasting solution is visiting your doctor for a checkup. 

If you can, don’t scratch. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Try to cover the itchy area so that you don’t scratch directly on the skin. You could also wear gloves to bed. 

Take a warm bath. To soothe your skin, take a bath in lukewarm water. You can add some Epsom salts, baking soda, or an oatmeal-based bath product to the water. Avoid scrubbing your skin too hard, and only spend a little time in the water. Remember to rinse properly and moisturize when you finish.

Rest. Your body deserves a good night’s sleep. It's also okay to nap during the day if you can. Getting enough sleep reduces your risk of itchy skin.

Other personal remedies you can try include:

  • Patting or tapping your skin instead of scratching
  • Using a cold, damp towel to cool and soothe your skin
  • Taking cool or warm baths or showers
  • Avoiding staying too long in the shower or bath
  • Wearing loose-fitting clothes
  • Trimming your nails and keeping them clean and smooth
  • Sticking to cleaning products made for sensitive skin

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Treating itchy skin at night

Make a point of seeing your doctor or a dermatologist if your itching:

  • Has persisted for more than 2 weeks and won’t improve with self-care 
  • Prevents you from sleeping or distracts you from daily activities
  • Affects your whole body
  • Happened suddenly without an obvious explanation
  • Is accompanied by other signs and symptoms, such as night sweats, weight loss, or fever 

Your doctor may want to treat you with creams, lotions, or gels that soothe and cool the skin. Short-term use of nonprescription corticosteroid cream may temporarily relieve an itch accompanied by red, inflamed skin. They may also have you try calamine lotion, creams with menthol, camphor, or capsaicin, or a topical anesthetic, such as pramoxine (for adults only). Keeping these products in the refrigerator can enhance their soothing effect. 

Itchy skin at night can be a nightmare. If your condition doesn’t go away despite using the strategies discussed above, you should consult a dermatologist. They'll conduct tests to further investigate what could be causing your symptoms. 

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Medically Reviewed on 4/28/2022
References
SOURCES:

American Academy of Dermatology: "10 Reasons Your Skin Itches Uncontrollably and How to Get Relief."

International Journal of Molecular Sciences: "Nocturnal Pruritus: The Battle for a Peaceful Night's Sleep."

Mayo Clinic: "Itchy skin (pruritus)."

National Health Service: "Itchy skin."