Itchy skin is usually just an annoying but temporary problem. It rarely means there is a serious underlying cause.
When to see your GP
You should see your GP if your itch:
- is severe
- lasts for a long time
- keeps coming back
- is associated with other symptoms – such as redness and swelling, or yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)
- is all over your body, with no obvious cause
Diagnosing the cause
Your GP will ask you about your symptoms – for example, if anything makes your itch worse, or if your itch comes and goes. They'll also examine your skin to look for visible symptoms.
In some cases, they may take a skin scraping or a swab. This can be tested to help identify the cause of your itching.
A blood test may also be carried out to look for underlying problems, such as thyroid or kidney disease.
Depending on the cause of your itch, you may be referred to a hospital specialist for a further assessment and specific treatment.
Common causes of itching
Itching can be caused by a number of different conditions, including:
- skin conditions – such as eczema
- allergies or skin reactions
- parasitic infestations – such as scabies
- viral infection - such as chickenpox
- insect bites and stings
- fungal infections – such as athlete's foot or vaginal thrush
- hormonal changes during pregnancy or the menopause
- an underlying condition such as liver or kidney problems, or an overactive thyroid gland
- certain medication - such as medication for pain and medication to reduce cholesterol
- psychological causes
The best treatment for itching depends on the cause. You may be able to relieve itching and reduce the risk of skin damage caused by scratching with some simple self-help measures.
If you experience itching that is bothering you, the following advice may help:
- keep your nails clean, short and smooth
- wear cotton gloves at night to prevent damage from scratching in your sleep
- pat or tap the itchy area, rather than scratching it
- hold a cold compress, such as a damp flannel, over the affected area to cool it down
- bathe or shower in cool or lukewarm water - keep baths to less than 20 minutes
- use personal hygiene products that are not perfumed
- avoid clothes that irritate your skin, such as wool or man-made fabrics
- use a moisturiser or emollient if your skin is dry or flaky
- avoid spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine, as these can affect the blood flow in your skin and make itching worse
- use mild laundry detergent that is less likely to irritate your skin
Over-the-counter medicines, such as antihistamines and creams, may help relieve itching caused by certain skin conditions. Speak to your pharmacist for advice. If your symptoms do not improve, your GP may prescribe other treatments to help.
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
For further information see terms and conditions.