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Pruritus (Itchy Skin)

Last Updated January 2024 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Kyle Bradford Jones, MD, FAAFP

What is pruritus (itchy skin)?

Pruritus is the medical term for itchy skin. Normally, itchy skin isn’t serious, but it can make you uncomfortable. Sometimes, itchy skin is caused by a serious medical condition. However, most itchy skin can be treated at home with lotions, moisturizers, and over-the-counter medicines.

Symptoms of pruritus (itchy skin)

Beyond an itching sensation, symptoms can include:

  • Redness
  • Bumps, spots or blisters
  • Dry, cracked skin
  • Leathery or scaly skin

Dry, irritated skin is more likely to get infected. Infected skin is red, warm and swollen. It may ooze fluid. You may need antibiotics to get rid of this kind of infection. Severe itching or pain, especially in older adults, sometimes is caused by a serious medical problem. Call your doctor if you are an older person who has severe itching or pain that doesn’t have an obvious cause and doesn’t get better within 2 weeks.

What causes pruritus (itchy skin)?

It can be caused by many things, including:

  • Dry skin
  • Skin disease
  • Pregnancy
  • Certain medicines
  • Allergies
  • Diabetes
  • Aging
  • Cancer (this is rare)
  • Gallbladder disease
  • Liver disease

Many times, itchy skin just happens when your skin is dry. This pattern is very common in the winter and in dry climates.

How is pruritus (itchy skin) diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a visual exam to look at the area that itches. They also will ask you questions about your health history. If your doctor thinks it might be caused by a more serious problem, you may have to undergo more tests. The tests are related to the condition for which your doctor is testing.

Can pruritus (itchy skin) be prevented or avoided?

If you know what is causing your itchy skin, you may be able to prevent it. For example, if it is caused by allergies, you will need to take your allergy medicine regularly. You may need to avoid the outdoors or other things that trigger your allergies. If it is due to diabetes, it may indicate you are not controlling your blood sugar levels. This means you will need to follow your doctor’s directions for taking medicine, exercising and eating healthy. If it is caused by pregnancy, it will likely clear up once the baby is born.

Pruritus (itchy skin) treatment

If your doctor determines the cause of the itch, they will treat the underlying condition. This should relieve the itching. Other treatments include:

  • Using a moisturizer. Choose one that is hypoallergenic (it should say so on the label). This means that this type of moisturizer is less likely to cause an allergic reaction on your skin. The best moisturizers are also the most “greasy.” Ointments (or oils) are best, followed by creams, and then lotions. Apply your moisturizer 3 or 4 times during the day. Put it on right after you wash or bathe. This will hold in the moisture from the water. If you have very dry hands, put petroleum jelly (one brand name: Vaseline) on them before you go to bed at night and sleep with your hands in cotton-lined gloves.
  • Changing your bathing habits. If you bathe too often, it may dry out your skin. Try to take short, lukewarm baths or showers. Oatmeal baths (one brand name: Aveeno) may be soothing to dry skin. Use a mild soap every day to clean your genital area and under your arms. Use soap on other parts of your body 2 or 3 times a week only. Some people use bath oils to help make their skin less dry. However, these oils can make your tub slippery. To avoid slipping and falling, put the oil on your skin after you get out of the bathtub.
  • Applying a cold compress. You can purchase a cold compress at the store or make your own.
  • Using over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream or antihistamines.
  • Avoiding scratching, wearing irritating fabrics and exposure to high heat and humidity.

Living with pruritus (itchy skin)

Knowing what triggers your itchy skin and having an effective treatment can improve your quality of life. This allows you to prepare for situations when discomfort is at its worse.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Why is my skin so dry?
  • Should I use a humidifier in my house?
  • Will my skin be less dry and itchy during the summer?
  • What moisturizer would you recommend?
  • Should I use a prescription lotion?
  • If my skin starts to crack and bleed, what should I do?
  • Should I change my soap?
  • Should I change the detergent I use?
  • Should I wear gloves when I work in the water?
  • Is there something I can use to stop my skin from itching?
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