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Itching - Causes of itching

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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There are many different possible causes of itching.

For example, itching can be a symptom of:

Each of these possible causes of itching is described in more detail below.

Skin conditions

Skin conditions that can cause itching include:

  • dry skin
  • eczema - a chronic (long-term) condition where the skin is dry, red, flaky and itchy
  • contact dermatitis - a condition where the skin becomes inflamed
  • urticaria - also known as hives, welts or nettle rash; urticaria is triggered by an allergen, such as food or latex, and causes a raised, red itchy rash to develop
  • lichen planus - an itchy, non-infectious rash of unknown cause
  • psoriasis - a non-infectious skin condition that causes red, flaky, crusty patches of skin and silvery scales
  • dandruff - a common, non-contagious skin condition that affects the scalp
  • folliculitis - a skin condition caused by inflamed hair follicles
  • prurigo - small blisters (fluid-filled swellings) that are very itchy  

Allergies and skin reactions

Itching is sometimes caused by environmental factors, such as:

  • cosmetics
  • dyes or coatings on fabrics
  • contact with certain metals, such as nickel
  • contact with the juices of certain plants or stinging plants
  • an allergy to certain foods or types of medication (for example, aspirin and a group of medicines called opioids)
  • prickly heat - an itchy rash that appears in hot, humid weather conditions
  • sunburn - skin damage caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays

Parasites and insects

Itching can also be caused by the following pests:

Infections

Itching may also be a symptom of an infection, such as:

  • chickenpox or another viral infection
  • a fungal infection, such as athlete's foot, which causes itching in between the toes, jock itch which affects the groin, and ringworm, a contagious condition that causes a ring-like red rash to develop on the body
  • a yeast infection, such as female thrush or male thrush, which can cause itching in and around the genitals

Fungal and yeast infections tend to cause itching in a specific area of the body. However, in untreated cases, or cases that do not respond well to treatment, itching may become generalised.

Systemic conditions

Systemic conditions are conditions that affect the entire body. Sometimes, itching can be a symptom of systemic conditions, such as:

Pregnancy and the menopause

In women, itching can sometimes be caused by hormonal changes.

Pregnancy

Itching often affects pregnant women and usually disappears after the birth. A number of skin conditions can develop during pregnancy and cause itchy skin. They include:

  • pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (PUPPP) - a common skin condition during pregnancy that causes itchy, red, raised bumps that appear on the thighs and abdomen (tummy)
  • prurigo gestationis - a skin rash that appears as red, itchy dots and mainly affects the arms, legs and torso
  • obstetric cholestasis - a rare disorder that affects the liver during pregnancy and causes itching of the skin without a skin rash

Read more information about itching and obstetric cholestasis in pregnancy.

Pregnant women may also experience eczema and psoriasis.

Seek advice from your midwife or GP if you have itching or any unusual skin rashes during your pregnancy.

Menopause

Itching is also a common symptom of the menopause, which is where a woman's periods stop, at around 52 years of age, as a result of hormonal changes. Changes in the levels of hormones, such as oestrogen, that occur during the menopause are thought to be responsible for the itching.

Medical Review: November 08, 2012
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