Why Does My Skin Itch? Most Common Causes

Itching isn't pleasant, but most of the time it's a temporary annoyance you can ease with a gentle scratch. However, it's sometimes a sign of an underlying disease or allergic reaction. When that happens, it's important to see a healthcare provider for diagnosis and treatment.

This article will cover a variety of conditions that cause itching, also known as pruritus.

person itching their arm

Oscar Wong / Getty Images

Conditions That Cause Itchy Rashes

Following are some conditions that cause itchy rashes and key features that set them apart.

Fungal Infections

Ringworm, which has nothing to do with worms, is a common fungal skin infection.

Ringworm has a distinctive ring-shaped rash. It may be red, raised, or scaly, and can develop on the skin, hair, or nails.

Athlete's foot and jock itch are fungal infections that can cause itching and burning sensations.

Vaginal candidiasis is a common fungal infection caused by yeast, a type of fungus. You might know it as a vaginal yeast infection. Other symptoms can include abnormal discharge, pain, and discomfort.

Bacterial Infections

Impetigo is a bacterial skin infection most common in children aged 2 to 5 years old, though anyone can get it.

Impetigo tends to occur around the nose and mouth or arms and legs. Red, itchy sores leak clear fluid or pus for several days before forming a yellow crust. It heals without scarring.

Folliculitis is another type of bacterial infection that can itch.

Folliculitis may look like you've broken out in pimples, but it's an infection of the hair follicles. The red bumps can swell and ooze pus.

Bug Bites

Bug bites usually cause a noticeable bump or rash that itches. Mosquito bites are common but the itch doesn't usually last long. A prolonged itch may occur when you're bitten by:

Eczema

Eczema, or dermatitis, is common, especially among babies and young children.

An eczema rash may look blotchy, red, and flakey. It's most likely to appear on the face, elbows, knees, hands, or feet. Scratching can increase redness, itching, and swelling.

Contact Dermatitis

When you develop a rash because you touched something that triggers a skin immune response, you have contact dermatitis.

One sign of contact dermatitis is that it appears at the point of contact. The itchy rash may be red or pink, flat or raised. A severe reaction can lead to blisters filled with clear fluid.

Hives

Hives affect 15%–25% of people at some point. You can develop hives due to an illness or allergic reaction but you may not be able to identify the cause.

The telltale sign of hives are the raised, red bumps that pop up suddenly and itch intensely. There may be swelling beneath the skin. Hives usually resolve within 24 hours, though they can last longer.

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is an overproduction of skin cells. There are different types of psoriasis, with plaque psoriasis being the most common.

Plaque psoriasis appears as thick, raised patches of varying sizes. These patches can develop anywhere but tend to form on the elbows, knees, lower back, or scalp. Some may have silver scales that itch. Scratching may cause the patches to get even thicker.

Medications With Itchiness as a Side Effect

Itchiness is a side effect of quite a few types of medicine. An allergic reaction to medication can involve both itching and a rash.

ACE Inhibitors

ACE inhibitors (angiotensin converting-enzyme inhibitors), such as Vasotec (inalapril) or Lotensin (benazepril), help control blood pressure. An allergic reaction can cause an itchy rash anywhere on the body. This can happen right away or years into treatment.

Allopurinol

Allopurinol, such as the brands Zyloprin or Caplenal, is a xanthine oxidase inhibitor. It's used to treat conditions such as gout, kidney stones, and high levels of uric acid from some cancer medications. Skin rash and itching can happen but are not common.

Amiodarone

Amiodarone, including the brand Pacerone, is used to treat abnormal heart rhythms. Rash is one potential side effect.

Diuretics

Diuretics help get rid of excess water in the body. Some people who take diuretics develop a rash in reaction to the drug. The rash usually appears on the legs in the form of purple skin eruptions.

Estrogen

Estrogen affects many parts of the body, including the skin. A rash can be a reaction to hormonal birth control pills.

Hydroxyethyl Cellulose

Hydroxyethyl cellulose is an ingredient in many personal care and medical products. An allergic reaction can cause itchiness, rash, and hives.

Opioids

Itching is a very common side effect of pain medications known as opioids.

Simvastatin

Simvastatin, such as Zocor or Vytorin, helps lower cholesterol, as well as the risk of heart attack and stroke. One potential side effect is itchy, red skin.

Acetaminophen

Acetaminophen is a pain reliever and fever reducer. Side effects can include itching, rash, hives, and peeling or blistering skin.

Ibuprofen

Ibuprofen, sold over the counter as Advil or Motrin, is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) used for pain, fever, and inflammation. Side effects include rash, itching, and hives.

Naproxen Sodium

Naproxen, such as Aleve, is another NSAID that can cause itching, rash, and hives.

Nervous System Conditions that Cause Itchiness

When you have a neurological itch, it may feel like a skin problem, but it's actually a nerve problem.

Shingles 

The varicella-zoster virus causes chicken pox and shingles. The most common symptom of chicken pox is an itchy rash that progresses into blisters before scabbing over.

After recovery from chicken pox, the virus remains dormant in the nervous system. It can reactivate years later as shingles. Shingles can cause neurological problems and serious complications.

The hallmark feature of shingles is the painful, itchy rash that usually occurs on one side of the body, typically the torso or face. Itching can outlast the rash.

Multiple Sclerosis

Itching and a pins-and-needles sensation are common symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS). It's a neurological misfire rather than a skin problem. Scratching won't ease the itch and too much scratching can lead to skin problems.

Stroke

It's not unusual to experience strange sensations following a stroke. These can include itching, pins and needles, or the feeling that something is running over your skin.

Brain Tumor

A brain tumor can cause generalized itching. This could be due to an allergic reaction to tumor-specific antigens or pressure on certain parts of the brain.

Nerve Damage

Damage to nerves in the peripheral system, spinal cord, or brain can lead to neuropathic itch.

Psychological Conditions That Cause Itchiness

When psychological factors trigger or aggravate itching, it's called psychogenic itch. Intense scratching can damage the skin and lead to skin problems. Skin problems and psychiatric problems often coexist.

Depression

Research suggests there's a link between depression and itch. People who score high on a depression scale also score higher for itch intensity than those who score lower on depression scales.

Anxiety

As with depression, anxiety can be a consequence of itch and an aggravating factor for itching and scratching.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Itching is common in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Intrusive thoughts can lead to compulsive scratching and skin-picking behavior.

Psychosis

A rare type of psychosis involves the false belief of being infested with parasites or insects. This can lead to excessive scratching and skin picking, resulting in lesions and other skin problems.

Trichotillomania 

Trichotillomania is a condition in which you have an overwhelming urge to pull out your own hair. In some cases, this urge may start with a tingle or itch just under the scalp or skin.

Serious Illnesses That Cause Itchiness

In some cases, itching is a symptom of a serious illness or advanced disease.

Kidney Disease

Dry skin and itching are symptoms of advanced kidney disease. A type of rash associated with end-stage kidney disease causes small, dome-shaped bumps that are extremely itchy. Vigorous scratching can lead to sores and bleeding skin.

Liver Disease

Itching is a common symptom of chronic liver disease. Scratching doesn't offer relief, which can impact mental health.

Thyroid Problems

Hives, itchy rash, and itchy skin without a rash are all symptoms of thyroid problems. In fact, you might be at higher risk of developing thyroid disease if you have an existing skin disease such as:

Cancer

Certain cancers, such as basal cell skin cancer, can cause itching.

Basal cell cancers usually start on the skin that gets more sun exposure, such as the face, head, and neck. It can present as raised red patches that itch, flat pale areas, or small pink growths. A key sign of basal cell cancer is that these areas are easily injured and slow to heal.

Itchy breast skin can be a sign of inflammatory breast cancer.

Inflammatory breast cancer rarely involves a breast lump. In addition to itching, symptoms can include pitting of the skin, rash, and an inverted nipple.

Diabetes

Diabetes can cause itching for several reasons. If your circulation is poor, itching is likely to occur on the lower legs. Diabetes can also leave you vulnerable to other things that cause itching, such as:

Iron Deficiency

Dry, itchy skin can be a symptom of iron deficiency.I t can also cause brittle hair and nails.

HIV

About 90% of people living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) have skin changes or symptoms at some point, including:

  • General rash from skin sensitivities
  • Shingles
  • Lesions caused by viral infections
  • Reactions to medications

Other Causes of Itchiness That Aren’t Related to a Condition

Dry skin can certainly feel itchy. Anyone can develop dry skin, but the occurrence increases with age. After age 65, skin tends to be thinner and have less moisture. Some other reasons for itchy skin are sunburn and sun blisters.

Diagnosis

A healthcare provider can sometimes make a diagnosis based on symptoms, a physical exam, and a medical history. That may be the case if you just started a new medication or have a distinctive rash.

Otherwise, your provider will assess your health to determine the next steps. This may involve visiting a specialist such as a:

When to See a Healthcare Provider

You don't have to visit a healthcare provider for a minor, temporary itch, but do see one if:

  • You have other symptoms, such as unexplained rash or blisters, fever, or fatigue
  • You've just started taking a new medication
  • You still itch after treatment
  • Itching is affecting your quality of life

Summary

Most of the time, itching is a temporary inconvenience. Chronic itching, on the other hand, can affect your quality of life. There are many causes of itching, from a simple mosquito bite to advanced liver disease. If you have a chronic itch, it's worth seeing a healthcare provider to find out why.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to health problems, you may think that itching isn't all that serious. That's often the case. But intense itching can interfere with just about every aspect of your life. That doesn't mean you have to endure it in silence. Many things that cause itching are treatable.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What diseases cause very itchy skin?

    Diabetes, kidney disease, and liver disease are among the conditions that can cause itchy skin.

  • What is the most common cause of itchiness?

    The cause is not always known, but it's likely that dry skin, rashes, and insect bites account for a large share.

  • When should I be worried about itchy skin?

    If you have unexplained, intense itching with or without other symptoms, it's worth contacting a healthcare provider.

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By Ann Pietrangelo
Ann Pietrangelo is a freelance writer, health reporter, and author of two books about her personal health experiences.