Pruritus, commonly known as itchy skin, is an uncomfortable feeling that causes you to scratch the itching area to obtain relief. Itch can cause discomfort and frustration and can lead, in severe cases, to disturbed sleep, anxiety and depression. Constant scratching can damage the skin and reduce its effectiveness as a protective barrier.
Itchy skin is usually harmless and clears up on its own, but in some cases, it can be caused by a medical problem. Pruritus has been linked to various factors, such as dry skin, pregnancy, and, in rare cases, cancer.
What are the symptoms of pruritus?
Common symptoms of this condition include:
- Scratch marks
- Dry or bumpy skin
- Itching sensation that increases when scratching
- Leathery or scaly skin
What are the causes of pruritus?
Various factors can cause pruritus, such as:
- Allergic reactions to food, insect bites, pollen, or medication
- Skin irritation from chemicals or cosmetics
- Cancer or cancer treatments
- Liver or kidney disease
- Skin conditions (such as eczema and psoriasis)
- Nerve disorders (such as shingles and multiple sclerosis)
- Mental health disorders (such as depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder)
How is pruritus diagnosed?
During your consultation, the doctor will review your medical history and perform a physical examination to determine what is causing your itchy skin. They may request blood tests to check whether you have a liver, kidney, or thyroid disease. The physician may also order imaging tests such as a chest X-ray to detect any internal abnormalities.
How is pruritus treated?
The doctor will decide the course of treatment depending on the cause of the itching:
- If the itching is caused by a certain medication, you will need to switch to a different one.
- If the itching is caused by a medical condition, you will need to treat the underlying condition.
The doctor may recommend self-care treatments, such as:
- Using hydrating moisturizers and lotions.
- Applying sunscreen regularly to prevent skin damage.
- Taking warm baths rather than hot ones to avoid dry skin.
- Avoiding certain irritating textiles, such as wool.
The doctor may prescribe medications to treat pruritus, such as:
- Antihistamines and topical or oral steroids to relieve symptoms.
- Antidepressants (such as Prozac and Zoloft) to treat depression and relieve chronic itching.
- Corticosteroid creams and ointments to provide a cooling effect on the affected area.
- Light therapy (phototherapy), which involves exposing your skin to a specific type of light for several sessions until your itching is alleviated.
When should I see a doctor for itchy skin?
If the itching is severe, lasts for more than two weeks, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as weight loss or fever, you should see a dermatologist immediately.
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