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Understanding the Causes and Complications of Skin and Scalp Itch
Skin itch is famously unpredictable, as anyone who has a sudden sharp urge to scratch knows very well. It can come on strong, and it’s virtually impossible to overcome with pure brain power — you reach for the spot quickly, drag your nails across the surface, and quite possibly leave yourself with even more irritation.
Science agrees that scratching is a futile measure (it intensifies the itch/scratch cycle), so you’ll need to get to the bottom of the problem for real relief. Get to know your symptoms, see if they match up with any of the common itch-causing conditions, and know when to see a doctor for a closer look.
Where’s the Itch?
Sometimes the location of the problem will lead you to the cause of the itch. While not every cases manifests in the same ways, certain itchy ailments tend to appear in certain regions of the body. Before you jump to conclusions, consider the boundaries of your itch, and what that can tell you.
On the Scalp
Anything that irritates your skin could prove to be equally bothersome for your scalp — after all, that’s skin, too. However, certain itchy conditions are more prone to popping up on your head, including:
- Dandruff. The flaky white stuff that plagues winter wardrobes is famous for its distracting itch. Dandruff can be completely benign (especially when you can trace the outbreak to a cold, dry spell of weather) or it can point to a deeper problem.
- Psoriasis. The thick, scaly plaques that mark psoriasis often come in patches over the arms, legs and chest, but many sufferers also notice flaky, itchy spot along their hairline and across the back of their scalp. You’ll know it’s psoriasis by the raised, crusted patches that soften and sometimes lift off in the shower, similar to the other plaques around your body.
- Seborrheic dermatitis. This form of eczema manifests on the scalp, and the most common symptom is — you guessed it — an annoying itch. Flaky, greasy red patches can form anywhere on the head, and you might notice them around the ears and eyebrows, too. In the worst cases, oozing lesions will form, which can be as unsightly as they are uncomfortable.
Around Dark and Damp Areas
Everybody has nooks and crevices that don’t see the light of day very often, and these are great hiding spots for itch-causing nuisances. The groin, armpits, breasts, buttocks, and other skin folds or pockets trap heat and moisture, which provides the ideal setting for a few known skin irritations.
- Ingrown hairs. If you regularly remove the hair around your genitals or armpits, when the hair grows in it can grow under the skin, causing an itchy, tender, pimple-like infection. The danger is worst when you shave, so you might want to try waxing or another method of hair removal to minimize the problem.
- Fungal infection. Candida is a natural and necessary organism that lives in the body, but it can sometimes grow out of control, causing an itchy rash to develop. It’s commonly known as jock itch, but cutaneous candidiasis isn’t limited to the nether regions: the telltale rash can pop up in other skin folds, like the armpits, under the breasts, or between the fingers.
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- STIs. Certain sexually transmitted infections, like trichomonas vaginalis and pubic lice, are easily passed from one person to another, and can leave you with an embarrassing itch. Also, keep in mind that both men and women can contract thrush — commonly known as yeast infection — through sex.
- Hemorrhoids. If you find yourself scratching (or trying not to scratch) around your bum, hemorrhoids might be the problem. These are groups of veins that can become inflamed and bulge out of the anus, and the affliction is far more common than you might imagine.
All Over the Body
Body-wide itch is impossible to ignore, but its vague beginnings and behavior can make it difficult to trace back to a specific cause. In fact, there are dozens of reasons behind nagging, widespread skin itch, and you might need some outside help to narrow down the suspects.
However, first consider these common explanations for itchy skin all over.
- Dry skin. Dry skin can come on strong in the winter when the wind picks up, or when the sun beats down, and it can be very irritating. Generally, dry skin caused by the elements is rough and flaky, but without the more severe signs of irritation, like a rash or red bumps.
- Autoimmune conditions. Psoriasis is a major culprit when it comes to widespread skin itch, and so is atopic eczema, which brings along a dry, burning and sometimes blistery rash.
- Internal diseases. Chronic systemic conditions like liver disease, thyroid disease, kidney failure, lymphoma and nerve disorders can all bring about skin itch in various ways, and often there’s no visible rash or mark. Systemic disease can interfere with the body’s detox processes, or affect the cells and glands in the skin directly, and the itch is usually widespread.
- Allergic reactions. Thousands of people will suffer the consequences of allergies in the form of itchy hives and irritation, also known as contact dermatitis. Certain substances are more likely to cause allergic reactions on the skin, including fabrics, chemicals, cosmetics or plants. Food allergies can also bring on skin itch, especially milk and shellfish allergies.
- Parasites. Scabies, fleas, lice, and other unsavory bugs can hop on your body the first chance they get and hold on tightly. Look out for the telltale signs, including small red bites (fleas), a pimple-like rash of bumps or blisters (scabies) and of course, a stubborn and merciless itch.
- Pregnancy. When you conceive your hormonal balance changes and that can change the moisture content of your tissues. Many women notice dry, itchy patches of skin, especially on the abdomen, thighs and breasts. Pre-existing skin conditions can also act up during the course of your nine months, though some women find relief from their psoriasis or eczema at some point in the pregnancy.
When to See a Doctor
Whether or not there’s a chronic condition to blame for your itch, suffering in silence is generally not a great idea. A prolonged itch will surely encourage lots of scratching, and eventually you could break the skin, leading to infection or scarring.
If your itch is impossible to ignore and lasts for more than a few days, make an appointment to see your doctor.
If your family doctor is unsure about the nature of the problem, it’s likely you’ll get a referral to a dermatologist. You can get the most out of your appointment by preparing a list of questions in advance, and jotting down all pertinent info about your symptoms, any medications you’re currently taking, and any known or suspected allergies.
Since so many things can cause acute or chronic itch, it can take some time to figure out what’s wrong. Be patient and communicate openly and honestly with your doctor to help them find an accurate diagnosis. In the meantime, they can prescribe a topical ointment, over-the-counter medication, or even a simple change in routine to diminish the intensity of the itch.