Being itchy can be irritating at best and debilitating at worst. There are countless causes of itchy skin that affect the body in different places. Itching is one of the most commonly treated skin conditions in dermatology. In proper skincare terms, it’s known as pruritus. It’s a nervous system response sent from the spinal cord to let you know there’s something wrong with your skin.
Some things that cause itching — like poison ivy, scabies, insect bites, ringworm, bedbugs, or simply dry skin — can be easily explained and treated, and can occur anywhere on the body. Some other causes, like hives or contact dermatitis, can be the result of allergies or side effects from medications, which can often be treated with home remedies like antihistamines like Benadryl.
Still others, like liver disease, kidney disease, skin cancer, multiple sclerosis, or immune system disorders need more serious medical intervention. If you’re concerned about any of these conditions, seek professional medical advice.
Follow along as we go head to toe to answer, “Why am I so itchy?”
There are numerous causes of an itchy scalp, but some are easier to identify and treat than others.
Head lice can cause significant itching depending on the severity of the infestation. Head lice must be treated by removing the head lice with a fine-tooth comb and/or medicated shampoo.
A more common cause of a scalp itch is seborrheic dermatitis — commonly known as dandruff, a form of eczema. Sufferers of this condition will have itchy, flaking skin, with red, yellow, or white patches. It’s important to note that the condition itself doesn’t cause hair loss, but excessive scratching can lead to hair loss.
The term “seborrheic” comes from the sebaceous glands — the glands that produce sebum, an oil common to the scalp, face, and upper back. The causes of seborrheic dermatitis are not well known, but the condition can be exacerbated by microorganisms on the skin, dry and cold weather, strong soaps, certain medications, and stress.
Seborrheic dermatitis can often be confused with psoriasis, another chronic skin disease. Scalp psoriasis differs from seborrheic dermatitis in that it usually produces silvery patches of skin.
Folliculitis is another scalp condition in which the hair follicles become infected by bacteria or fungus. It can lead to red, itchy bumps on the head and requires treatment.
Another cause of an itchy scalp can be a dry scalp. A dry scalp doesn’t necessarily indicate a medical condition: the scalp might simply lack moisture, leading to flaky skin. Using a moisturizer or a moisturizing conditioner with products like hyaluronic acid, coconut oil, tea tree oil, or aloe can help.
A person’s scalp can itch as a result of a reaction to a hair care product. These allergic reactions are called contact dermatitis, and may result from contact with any number of products your skin doesn’t agree with, resulting in an itchy rash. A common example is hair dye, though simply leaving shampoo on your scalp for too long can lead to contact dermatitis.
The best way to determine why your scalp is itching is to visit your dermatologist. Short of that, consider your hair care regimen: Learn more about your shampoo or conditioner to see if they’re too harsh for your skin. Products containing parabens — a common preservative in cosmetics — as well as alcohol can damage your skin’s barrier. Consider switching to an antifungal or dandruff shampoo, or simply a gentler shampoo if your dandruff is not severe.
An itchy face can be caused by many different external or internal factors. The important step is to determine whether the itch is chronic or temporary. A chronic condition lasts for six weeks or more, even though a week of itching can feel like forever.
Contact dermatitis with an irritant — whether it’s soap, makeup, or something in your environment, like pollen — can cause your face to itch.
The face can also suffer from seborrheic dermatitis in the same way the scalp does. It appears as itchy, flaky skin and can appear anywhere on the face.
Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, can also be a cause of an itchy face. It affects up to 30% of the U.S. population, especially children and teens. The causes of eczema are unique to the individual and can be difficult to pinpoint.
Similarly, psoriasis can develop on the face, as it can anywhere else. Psoriasis on the face most commonly occurs around the hairline, the upper lip, and the eyebrows.
Itchy ears can be truly irritating, especially if the itch is inside the ear canal. There can be many potential reasons your ears itch.
An ear infection can lead to an ear itch. Bacteria can colonize the ear canal, leading to discomfort and itching. Ear infections can be caused by earwax buildup as well, which can result from overusing cotton swabs or bobby pins to remove earwax, or even from the overuse of earplugs. This can lead to infection behind the eardrum and temporary hearing loss.
Another cause of infection is swimmer’s ear, a condition in which water gets trapped in the ear. If it’s not quickly treated, it can lead to an infection. It can best be treated with eardrops that remove the water.
Psoriasis and atopic dermatitis can also appear around the outer ear — as they can anywhere on the body.
Those with hearing aids may also develop an ear itch as a result of moisture getting trapped, potentially leading to bacterial infection.
Besides contact dermatitis, scabies, and insect bites, the most common causes of a long-term itch on the arm are either psoriasis or eczema. There are different types of psoriasis and eczema that can affect the region.
Plaque psoriasis, for example, often affects the elbows. It often appears as thick, red patches covered by silver, scaly skin. If this sounds like your elbows, there’s a good chance you suffer from plaque psoriasis.
Atopic dermatitis, the most common form of eczema, can appear anywhere on the arms or anywhere on the body. It is also common on the elbows, but its appearance is different. Rather than being silvery, it’s red in appearance and may emit pus or bleed when scratched.
Another type of eczema that can appear on the arms is discoid eczema. Discoid eczema is characterized by disc-shaped, inflamed, red bumps on the skin and commonly affects the forearms. Its causes are poorly understood and are usually unique to the individual.
Brachioradial pruritus is a rare but chronic condition that results in itching and burning around the forearm and occasionally the neck and shoulder area. It's seen mostly in women with lighter skin, and may flare up after sun exposure — especially sunburn. It's often treated with oral medications like gabapentin.
Itchy armpits are a common dermatological complaint and can result from many causes.
For example, inverse psoriasis can arise in places where skin folds meet — like under the armpits. Inverse psoriasis can be caused by friction, an overabundance of moisture, or fungal infections. The skin will be red, swollen, and itchy.
Similarly, atopic dermatitis often appears in skin folds. If the skin in your underarms is red, itchy, and weeps fluid or pus, it’s likely atopic dermatitis.
Besides psoriasis or atopic dermatitis, you may have contact dermatitis from your deodorant, antiperspirant, or laundry detergent. Try fragrance-free products if you have sensitive skin.
Hands and Feet
The hands and feet are more susceptible to contact dermatitis than most parts of the body because they touch so many other things. Finding out exactly what causes contact dermatitis can be tricky since everybody’s skin is different. It can be caused by a host of external factors, like detergents, fragrances, chemicals, plants, or even certain metals. If you have itchy hands after repeatedly touching a certain substance, you may be allergic to it.
In addition to contact dermatitis, look out for two more serious conditions that often affect the hands and feet: pustular psoriasis and dyshidrotic eczema. If you experience symptoms of either, a visit to the dermatologist is in order.
Pustular psoriasis generally develops quickly and results in red, itchy, pus-filled blisters. It most commonly appear on the hands, feet, and fingertips. The pustules may develop and disappear quickly, and may also occur in repeated bouts.
Dyshidrotic eczema usually develops on palms of the hands and soles of the feet, though other parts can be affected as well. Small, intensely itchy bumps will appear and may later become larger. They run the risk of infection. Besides that, having itchy palms can be truly irritating.
Athlete’s foot — technically known as tinea pedis — is a fungal infection that most commonly occurs between the toes. It results from too much moisture being kept around the feet, or can commonly be picked up in unsanitary shared showers. It leads to a stinging, burning rash that can develop scales. It can be treated with an over-the-counter antifungal medication.
Back and Torso
Besides insect bites and contact dermatitis, atopic dermatitis and plaque psoriasis are common causes of itchiness on the back and torso. As previously mentioned, they can occur anywhere on the body.
Additionally, inverse dermatitis can cause intense itching in places where skin folds meet, like under the breasts.
Seborrheic dermatitis may also occur around the neck and the upper area of the back, leading to itchy, flaky skin.
Legs and Groin
Many itchy symptoms affecting the legs and groin can be found where the skin meets: at the back of the knees, in the folds around the groin, and under the buttocks.
A common affliction of the groin region is known as jock itch, medically known as tinea cruris. It’s similar to athlete’s foot in that it’s a fungal infection. It occurs in areas where moisture, often in the form of sweat, does not dissipate enough. Like athlete’s foot, it can be treated with an over-the-counter antifungal cream.
Plaque psoriasis can occur in skin folds in this region as well. Additionally, it’s common on the knees.
Atopic dermatitis is fairly common on the back of the knees where the skin meets.
Those with varicose veins can develop varicose eczema on the lower legs, which can involve intensely itchy blisters as well as dry, scaly patches.
Scratch That Itch
If you’re feeling consistently itchy, know that you’re not alone and that there are many ways to help treat whatever your symptoms may be. Home treatments in the past have relied upon itch creams containing calamine lotion, menthol, and hydrocortisone cream to comfort itchy skin.
However, more modern itch relief is available. If you suffer from eczema or psoriasis, Eczema Honey has a range of specially designed itch relief products that will be perfect to nix the itch. Try it on the affected area and find solace from the itch.