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Why We Itch and the Urge to Scratch

What causes an itch, and why does scratching bring relief?

We all have had an itch now and then that needs to be scratched, literally. Why do we itch? Why does scratching relieve our urge to itch our skin?

What is an Itch?

An itch is an often irritating sensation causing a desire to scratch a certain area. The technical term for an itch is pruritis, which loosely translates to "inflammation of the skin." Itches can be caused by a number of reasons, from a fly or insect crawling around on our skin, an outbreak of eczema, a bug bite, or even certain foods or drugs, allergic reactions, and even emotions. It's believed that an itch originates from certain nerve or chemical messengers. There are names for nerves that are sensitive to itching called pruriceptors. It has been shown that itch receptors are only housed in the top two layers of skin, the epidermis and dermis transitional layers.

An itch can be specific to one area (localized) or occurring in several different areas or all over teh body (generalized). Dry skin is on eof the main causes of itchiness in most people. This itchiness from dry skin can be the result of sunburn, windburn, or other mild or moderate damage to the skin.

Damage to the nervous system can create itch. Such types of damage can include, but are not limited to, peripheral neuropathy, brain tumors, nerve irritation, and multiple sclerosis. 

Psychiatric disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorders, delusions, and even hallucinations can bring on an itching sensation. It's thought that the main cause of itch is psychological, and commonly due to some type of stress or anxiety, which is common and different from psychiatric disorders. On the same note, stress can aggravate an itch caused by other sources as well.

Chemicals can also be to blame for some itchiness.

For some people, just talking or reading about the words itching and scratching can bring about the desire to scratch. This is sometimes known as "contagious itch." This is somewhat similar to why we sometimes yawn when we see or hear others yawn. It's hypothesized that humans have a "mirror neuron system" where we imitate others performing the same action.

Itch Relief

Many people may immediately think of the word "scratch" when they think about itching. Scratching is one way to bring relief to an itching sensation. For example, responding to a mosquito on your skin may impulsively cause you to scratch (or slap) that area to remove the insect. Scratching may cause some relief by stimulating the nerve endings, but it can also irritate the skin and cause more itchiness. Also, scratching the skin can possibly cause tiny open areas where bacteria can enter and cause infection. Try gently rubbing or massaging the area of the itch rather than scratching it.

Eating a well-balanced diet is said to help relieve frequent itch and maintain healthy skin. Getting enough nutrients is important to our health for many reasons, and that makes one more. Herbal treatments have also been used by many to help remedy an itch.

There are many other ways to relieve an itching sensation, including cold showers or cold compresses, hot showers and baths (which can cause temporary relief but not recommended since hot water may cause dry skin and irritation and thus bring about more itchiness later), topical solutions and anti-itch creams and sprays (most contain any number of the following ingredients: camphor, menthol, phenol, benzocaine, and others), and clearing up any infections, such as a fungal infection or a sexually transmitted disease, or infestations, such as lice or fleas. Also, avoid any known allergens as they may be the culprit to causing itchiness. It is suggested that those with sensitive skin only use mild soaps and detergents (and unscented items) on their skin, clothes, and bedding whenever possible.

More suggestions for those sensitive to itch include wearing loose-fitting clothing, wearing cotton, avoiding wool or other harsh fabrics, avoiding perfumes or colognes, avoiding cosmetics, applying lotions or moisturizers to skin, especially after washing, maintaining a cool environment without high humidity, and avoiding skin products containing alcohol, among others.

When is it More than "Just an Itch?"

There are certain cases in which itching can be a serious condition and it is best to consult a medical professional for assistance in controlling and monitoring an itch. When home remedies do not work (if you have been using hydrocortisone treatments for more than 10 days without noticeable relief) or the itching is disturbing your normal routines, such as sleeping patterns, you may need professional help. Itching in an area of skin abnormality (such as eczema or scabies) should be evaluated by a medical doctor or dermatologist. Physicians can prescribe stronger treatments than over the counter drugs and also determine if there is an underlying condition causing your itch, which would certainly need to be treated.

Sources

http://www.medicinenet.com/itch/page2.htm

http://www.answers.com/topic/itch

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Itch

http://skindisease.suite101.com/article.cfm/how_does_itching_occur

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Comments (4)

Interesting article

Very interesting article

A good read! Makes me itchy just reading it though :-) Especially this time of year!

My mother's skin has itched for years. Her doctor has had her try everything and nothing seems to help. She has scratched so hard at times that she actually brings blood and have made several scars. I try and make her wear long sleaves to keep from actually the skin when she scratches. This way she can rub the area instead of scratching. If anyone out there knows what can help her please let me know. Thanks.

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