Itchy skin is a common complaint this time of year. In most cases, the itching can be attributed to dry skin but there can be several other reasons for itching. A few years ago a colleague called me to tell me that she had very itchy skin and she was not sure what to do. It was the middle of the summer so dry skin was not the culprit. She also said that she did not feel exactly like herself, although she did not have any specific complaints. I told her to have her thyroid levels checked out. Sure enough, she had a problem with her thyroid and the itching went away when the thyroid hormone level was brought back to normal. She now thinks that I am brilliant! On a serious note, itching can be a dreadful experience. In addition to feeling uncomfortable, it can lead to exhaustion because it may keep you awake at night. People who see you scratching may not want to be near you. The scratched area can become infected. Don't despair because there is something that you can do. The following five questions may help you get to the cause of your itching.
Do you know if you have dry skin? Since dry skin is the most common cause of itching (particularly in the winter) and the most easily solved, it's important to determine if it is the case for you. Simply look down at your feet and legs (body areas that tend to be drier than others) and if the skin is an ashen or grey color, is flaky or scaly and if the skin lines are prominent, then you have your diagnosis, dry skin. The solution may be is as simple as applying a combination anti-itch and lubricating lotion like Sarna Lotion or Eucerin Calming Cream each morning and night. Check out this blog for additional tips.
- What are you doing when you become aware of the itching or when the itching intensifies? If you notice that the itching occurs consistently when you are at school or work or even when you are with a certain person, you should consider that stress or anxiety may be the cause of your itching. Indeed, there are psychological causes for itching. This does not mean that your itching is not real. It only means that the trigger of your itching is psychological. The key to alleviating this type of itching is to identify the stressor and then find solutions to reduce the stress. Another approach is not to place yourself in the stressful situation to begin with. Lastly, if you think that you are unable to take care of the problem by yourself, consider asking for a referral to a psychologist or counselor or speak with your minister.
- What medications are you taking? Medications can cause itching of the skin indirectly from drying of the skin or directly by causing an allergic reaction. Water pills, also called diuretics, used to treat high blood pressure or swelling of the extremities can lead to dry skin and itching particularly in the winter. Cholesterol lowering medications may decrease the skin's oil and produce dryness. Ask your doctor if anything can be done. Finally, allergic reactions to medications can cause very severe itching of the skin along with hives or a rash. The medication must be discontinued (after consulting with your doctor) for the itching to resolve.
- Have you traveled out of town, stayed in a hotel or visited a hospital, nursing home or day care center before the itching started? Infestations and bites caused by bedbugs, lice, scabies, or even mosquitoes can cause significant itching. These infestations can be acquired when you are at hospitals, nursing homes, daycare centers or hotels. Although you itch, you may or may not see a rash with these infestations or bites. With scabies, the itching is very severe, often keeping you awake at night, and a sign you may see is a tiny white line between your fingers or on the wrists. For bed bug bites, you may see three itchy red bumps lined up in a row. With lice, you may not see a rash but rather if you look closely you may see the louse attached to the seams of your clothes or the root of a hair. Before the itching will resolve, you must get rid of the infestation. See your doctor in the case of lice and scabies and an exterminator in the case or beg bugs.
- Have you felt ill or just not yourself? There are quite a few internal disorders that can result in itching. Liver problems from hepatitis or gallstones, kidney problems and even thyroid problems may all cause itching. More serious problems like cancer of the lymphatic system called lymphoma, may also cause itching. In the situation of not feeling well, it is important to see your health care provider for a physical examination and testing.
Follow Dr. Susan Taylor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/SusanTaylorMD