Itchy skin, or pruritis, can feel unpleasant and make you want to rub or scratch the area constantly. You may have a burning or prickling feeling. It can be uncomfortable and even affect your sleep.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

Summary

Itchy skin can cause discomfort and irritation, and make you want to scratch your skin. Dry skin, which becomes more common with ageing, can cause itchiness or make itchy skin worse. 

Itchy skin can look normal but depending on the cause, it can also look bumpy, red and/or rough. Scratching can cause raised, thick areas of skin, which may bleed or become infected. 

Itchy skin is not usually serious and in many cases, the itching will go away by itself after a few weeks, or you can easily treat it with an over-the-counter cream or ointment. If it doesn’t get better in a couple of weeks, you should ask your GP for advice, especially if you’re itching all over and have a rash.

Itchy skin symptoms

Itchy skin can affect all or parts of your body, such as your arm or leg, or small patches of skin. Your skin may appear normal or you may notice changes such as: 

  • Blisters, bumps or spots
  • Cracked, dry skin
  • Leathery or scaly skin
  • Redness

Itchiness can be intense and last for long periods of time. Repeated and prolonged rubbing or scratching of itchy skin can make it feel itchier. 

Causes of itchy skin

  • There are many causes of itchy skin. These include an allergic reaction to something you’ve touched (contact dermatitis), such as a chemical or metal, or a response to something you've swallowed, such as food or drugs.

    Other common causes include:

    • Dryness or irritation caused by long-term (chronic) skin conditions, such as atopic dermatitis (eczema), dandruff or psoriasis
    • Hormonal changes during pregnancy or after the menopause
    • Infections  — this includes: 
      • Fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot or ringworm
      • Parasites on the skin, such as scabies or lice
      • Shingles
    • Injuries — this includes:
      • Burns
      • Insect bites
      • Scars
    • Other medical and mental health conditions:
      • Anaemia
      • Anxiety
      • Certain cancers — eg lymphoma and multiple myeloma
      • Depression
      • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
      • Pinched nerves
    • Rashes — eg hives, which is often caused by an allergic reaction, or prickly heat

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Conditions related to itchy skin

There are many underlying conditions that can sometimes cause itchy skin. These include:

Complications of itchy skin

If your itchy skin lasts more than six weeks, it can reduce your quality of life eg it may cause anxiety or depression, and/or interfere with your sleep. 

Repeated and prolonged rubbing or scratching of itchy skin can make it feel itchier. This can cause injury, infection and scarring. 

Getting a diagnosis for itchy skin

You should see your GP if your itchy skin is:

  • Affecting your daily life
  • Affecting your whole body — this could be a sign of a more serious problem
  • Caused by a new lump, rash or swelling that is worrying you
  • Not getting better with self-care 
  • Recurring

Your GP will ask you about anything you think may have caused your itchy skin, as well as any other symptoms you may have. They’ll examine the area and may wipe a cotton bud over it to send for testing.

In some cases, your GP may arrange for you to have some blood tests to check your iron levels and the health of your kidneys, liver and thyroid. 

They may suggest you have a fasting blood glucose test to check for diabetes.

They may also suggest you have a chest X-ray to check for enlarged lymph nodes.

In some cases, they may refer you to see a consultant dermatologist who specialises in diagnosing and treating skin conditions.

Treatments for itchy skin

There are some simple things you can try yourself to relieve your symptoms. These include:

  • Avoiding alcohol, caffeine or spicy foods
  • Holding something cool against your skin eg a clean, damp towel
  • Making changes to your hygiene and self-care routine, including: 
    • Keeping your nails clean, short and smooth to help you avoid scratching 
    • Not spending a long time bathing or showering, and patting your skin dry rather than rubbing it
    • Taking cooler showers or cooler baths with baking soda, colloidal or uncooked oatmeal, or Epsom salts added to the water
    • Using an unperfumed emollient or moisturiser twice a day
    • Using unperfumed soap and shampoo
  • Not wearing tight clothes made from synthetic materials or wool and instead, wearing loose cotton clothes that don't rub against the itchy area and will help keep your skin cool
  • Washing your clothes in a laundry detergent that is made for sensitive skin
  • Wearing gloves at night to help you avoid scratching 

It is helpful to try to identify what is causing your itch so you can avoid it eg a cleaning product, dry or hot rooms, heavy clothes or hot baths. If dry rooms make your itchiness worse, you can try using a humidifier at home. 

Reducing your stress levels can also help. Approaches to reduce stress include: 

  • Acupuncture therapy
  • Behaviour modification
  • Counselling
  • Meditation
  • Yoga

If your itchy skin is accompanied by red, inflamed skin, you can try applying an over-the-counter corticosteroid cream. 

If you think your itchy skin is caused by an allergy, you can try an over-the-counter allergy medication. These medications can often make you drowsy, which may be helpful if your itchy skin interferes with your sleep.

If these approaches do not relieve your itchy skin, your GP may prescribe:

  • Corticosteroid creams and ointments — if your skin is also red and inflamed; after applying the cream or ointment, you can cover the area with a clean, damp, cotton cloth as moisture aids absorption into the skin
  • Light therapy (phototherapy) — where your skin is exposed to a specific type of light over multiple sessions 
  • Oral medications
  • Other creams and ointments — eg calcineurin inhibitors, such as pimecrolimus and tacrolimus, or topical anaesthetics, such as capsaicin and doxepin

If dryness or irritation cause your itchy skin, your doctor will recommend using an unperfumed moisturiser at least twice a day.

Further treatments will depend on your diagnosis.

Frequently asked questions

What is itchy skin a sign of?

Itchy skin can be a sign of your body reacting to many different conditions or events, such as an allergic reaction to something you’ve touched (contact dermatitis) or a response to something you've swallowed, such as food or drugs.

Itchy skin can also be a sign of a long-term (chronic) skin condition, an infection or an injury (eg burns, insect bites, scars). Hormonal changes during pregnancy or after the menopause can your skin to itch too, as can several other medical conditions, including:

  • Anaemia
  • Anxiety
  • Certain cancers
  • Depression
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Pinched nerves

What can cause itching all over the body without a rash?

Itchy skin all over your body without a rash is often caused by dry skin, which becomes more common with ageing. It can also be caused by bathing or showering in hot water, hot or cold weather, and low humidity. 

Other causes of itchy skin all over your body without a rash include: 

  • Anaemia — this is a less common cause of itchy skin 
  • Certain medications — eg blood pressure medication, such as amlodipine, opioids and statins
  • Conditions affecting your kidney, liver, pancreas or thyroid
  • Diabetes
  • HIV
  • Mental health conditions — eg anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

How do I stop itching all over my body?

If you have itching all over your body, treatment to stop it will depend on the underlying cause. If the cause is dry skin, moisturising twice a day with an unperfumed moisturiser or emollient can help. If the cause is a medical condition, your GP will recommend a treatment based on your specific diagnosis.

If you have itching all over your body, you should see your GP as it could be a sign of something more serious.

Can itchy skin be a sign of liver problems?

Yes, itchy skin can be a sign of liver problems. Your liver cleans your blood and if it is damaged due to disease, your whole body can be affected, which includes your skin. Liver problems that can cause itchy skin include autoimmune liver diseases and hepatitis.

Is itchy skin a sign of diabetes?

Yes, itchy skin can be a sign of diabetes. Diabetes causes high blood sugar levels which cause a loss of fluids from your body. This results in dry skin, which can cause itchiness.

Why is my skin so itchy at night?

Itchy skin at night can be due to your body’s natural processes, which change at night eg body temperature and blood flow to your skin increase at night, which warms your skin and can therefore make it feel itchier. 

Certain medical conditions can also make your skin itchier at night, including: 

  • Anaemia
  • Certain cancers — this includes leukaemia and lymphoma
  • Conditions that affect your nervous system — eg diabetic neuropathy, multiple sclerosis, restless legs syndrome, shingles
  • Skin conditions — eg atopic dermatitis (eczema), hives and psoriasis
  • Kidney, liver or thyroid problems
  • Mental health conditions — eg anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, stress

Other causes of itchy skin that can cause more intense itchiness at night include: 

  • Allergic reactions — eg to chemicals, cosmetics, drugs and foods
  • Organisms — eg bedbugs, itch mites (that causes scabies), lice and pinworms
  • Pregnancy