Why Scabs Itch and Why You Shouldn’t Scratch Them

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Recently, you scraped your knee pretty badly. You cleaned it and made sure to bandage it. Now, a scab has formed, and you’re noticing the wound feels itchy. What’s going on? Is itching something to worry about?

An itchy scab can be irritating, but it’s typically a sign that a wound is healing correctly. 

Cut on hand

ChrisHepburn / Getty Images

How Wounds Heal

When you injure yourself and cut, scrape, or burn your skin, blood begins to clot in order to stop the blood from excessively leaving your body. Blood clotting happens thanks to cells called platelets. Forming platelets is the body’s way to patch up a leak.

Eventually, when the wound stops bleeding, a scab forms. The scab helps protect the freshly injured skin from contaminants like bacteria and allows the skin to heal.

Underneath a scab, your body is working hard to repair damage to the skin and blood vessels. The body also enlists white blood cells to help clean up any foreign matter and bacteria in the wound. After some time, a scab will fall off to reveal brand-new skin. It’s a pretty amazing process.

Of course, the body can’t repair all wounds this way. Deep wounds and severe burns require emergency medical treatment. But most small nicks, cuts, scrapes, and surface burns heal well on their own in a healthy person.

Why Scabs Itch

Itching occurs as a normal part of healing. However, the reason the itch develops isn't completely understood.

One study from 2016 suggests that the same mechanisms at work with eczema itchiness are involved in itching during wound healing.

Additionally, itching that occurs during wound healing might be the result of poorly translated nerve signals. The nerves under your skin transmit information to your brain, but they’re not always good at passing along the message in a comprehensive way. 

Your brain might receive a signal that your skin is regenerating via collagen synthesis, but that information is translated as an itching sensation. And so, what you feel is that itching sensation. 

While some experts believe histamines, which are released by the body to help with wound healing, may contribute to itching, research suggests that their effect may be minimal.

When to See a Doctor

It’s time to see a doctor if you have symptoms of an infection. Signs that a wound may be infected include:

  • Pus
  • Redness and swelling
  • A red streak that’s emanating from the wound
  • Severe pain
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Black edges around the wound, which may be necrotic tissue
  • An injury that isn’t healing or whose stitching has opened up

If you don’t have an up-to-date tetanus shot, you should see a doctor immediately, especially if the wound has dirt in it.

Why You Shouldn’t Scratch

Scratching an itch feels great. It’s so satisfying, in fact, that people tend to scratch even when they really shouldn’t. Scratching an itchy wound that is in the process of healing, however, can cause scarring and prolong healing if you open the wound back up again.

You might even introduce bacteria, causing an infection to develop.

Wound Healing Tips

When you get a minor cut, scrape, or burn, it’s essential to properly take care of the wound. Proper care ensures the wound heals without complications and lessens your chances of getting a scar. For a minor wound:

  • Clean the area with gentle soap and water to remove debris and bacteria
  • Bandage the area to prevent contamination 
  • Avoid scratching during the healing process 

If your wound is deep, very large, or doesn’t seem to be healing, see a doctor. Some wounds require stitches. An injury that’s infected may require antibiotic treatment.

How to Stop Itching

Itching can sometimes be excruciating, even more so if you’re trying not to scratch. However, it’s important to avoid excessive scratching because it can cause the wound to open up again. By alleviating the itch, you can avoid a prolonged healing process and potential infection from scratching too much. Here are a few ways to stop the itching:

  • Applying cold or warm compresses
  • Moisturizing
  • Avoiding tight clothing or accessories worn around the wound
  • Covering the wound with a bandage
  • Applying over-the-counter (OTC) anti-itch creams 
  • Bathing in lukewarm water with added moisturizers or oatmeal

It may also help to find effective distractions from the itching. If itching is very severe and there is a high risk of infection, your doctor may recommend a sleep medication or a neuropathic drug called Neurontin (gabapentin) to help you rest and decrease the urge to itch.

Who Is at Risk for Slow Wound Healing?

Some people are at a higher risk of experiencing slow wound healing, which can lead to infection. The following people have a higher risk of complications from a wound:

  • People with diabetes
  • Older adults
  • People on certain medications
  • Smokers
  • People who drink heavy amounts of alcohol
  • People with poor blood flow

If you tend to scratch in your sleep, you may want to wear hand coverings. They can prevent you from damaging your skin or introducing bacteria to the wound. It may also help to cut your fingernails.

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  4. Lerner E. Why do wounds itch? Wounds. 2018;30(1):1-3.

  5. MedlinePlus. How wounds heal. Updated May 17, 2020.

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