Is that itch that just won’t go away no matter how much you scratch it the sign of a larger medical problem? Dr. Jeffrey Ross Gunter, a dermatologist at SummitMD Dermatology, has been diagnosing the cause of his patients’ itching for over thirty years. “In my experience, there are many reasons why you could be experiencing itchy skin,” he says. “Fortunately, there are also many ways to manage your condition and get much-needed relief.”
One of the most common causes, according to Dr. Gunter, is dry skin. “Before you see a dermatologist, there are a few things you can do at home. A humidifier, especially in the winter when your heater dries out the air and lowers humidity levels, can help a lot. In addition to applying moisturizer to your skin, use cleansers that are fragrance-free. Doing so will avoid irritating your skin and making the itch even worse.”
Dr. Gunter also recommends taking shorter showers with warm, not hot, water and avoiding excessive exposure to the sun and to cold air. “If, however, the DIY remedies don’t help, I always direct my patients to come in as soon as possible. Itchy skin can actually be a symptom of a far more serious problem, including kidney disease, atopic dermatitis, and psoriasis, so it’s important to seek treatment if you can’t resolve it on your own.”
Allergies are also behind many cases of itchy skin. “Believe it or not, nickel causes many skin reactions; this is especially problematic since it’s found in zippers and cell phones, among other objects,” says Dr. Gunter. “The list of other allergens includes plants, latex, fragrances, and shampoos. As you might expect, the best prevention of an allergic reaction is avoidance, but to pinpoint the source, it’s best to see a dermatologist.”
Many of Dr. Gunter’s older patients need relief from itchy skin. “They’re generally over the age of 65,” he says. “Their skin is itching because as we get older, our skin thins. This leads to a decreased level of moisture in the skin, which causes it to dry out and itch. Because of their age, I recommend that these patients come in just to make sure the issue is not due to some other cause, and if it isn’t, I can prescribe a strong moisturizer to relieve their symptoms.”
Some itches point to a problem with the patients’ nerves. “Multiple sclerosis, stroke, and shingles can all cause itching,” explains Dr. Gunter. “When a disease or even an injury damages the nerve, it can result in intense itching. You’ll see this in one part of the body even if there isn’t any rash. In cases like these, it’s especially important to see a dermatologist so that this larger problem can be diagnosed, which will make effectively treating the itch easier.”
The patient’s itch can also be symptomatic of a medical problem within the body. “Kidney disease, liver disease, diabetes, hepatitis C, and HIV are a few that result in itching,” states Dr. Gunter. “With people who are on dialysis because they have kidney disease, the itch spreads and is especially strong on the legs, arms, and back. For those with liver disease, their itch typically begins on their palms and soles and then moves to other areas of the body. As you can see, because an itch can indicate such a serious issue, it’s best to have its cause be diagnosed by a dermatologist.”
While many cases of itchy skin will resolve on their own, Dr. Gunter recommends seeing a dermatologist for those that persist. “It’s the classic example of ‘better safe than sorry,’” he says. “At the very least, you will get relief for a disruptive health problem. It is also possible that getting your itch diagnosed will save your life.”
Jeffrey Ross Gunter, MD, FAAD is a board-certified dermatologist at SummitMD Dermatology. He is a graduate of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California where he was previously a Clinical Professor of Dermatology and Chief Resident of Dermatology at the LAC/USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, CA.
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