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Can being around scratchy people make you feel itchy?

Researchers have proved that seeing someone who is scratching themselves can make you feel itchy too. They claim that their study could help them understand what triggers itchiness in people with allergies and skin conditions.

BMJ Group News

What do we know already?

woman rubbing skin

There are some reactions we have when we are around other people that we struggle to understand. We don’t know if they are just anecdotes, or if they are backed by scientific research. A good example is whether seeing someone yawn makes us yawn and feel tired too. Another is whether seeing people who are scratching themselves makes us feel itchy too.

Researchers decided to study this itch reaction. They asked 30 volunteers to look at images they thought would make people feel itchy. They used different types of image - one type was ‘itch-related’ and featured insects like ants and fleas, and people with skin conditions. Another group of ‘ skin contact’ images featured ants or butterflies crawling on people’s skin, while a third group of ‘skin response’ images showed people scratching an insect bite or washing their hands. The volunteers also looked at unrelated, neutral images, such as healthy skin, or midges and insects flying. The researchers then asked the volunteers two questions: ‘How itchy do you feel?’ and ‘How itchy do you think the person in the picture feels?’

What does the new study say?

People felt itchier when they looked at itch-related pictures than when they looked at neutral pictures. They also scratched themselves more when they were looking at itch-related pictures than when they looked at neutral pictures. People scratched themselves more when they saw pictures of other people scratching themselves, compared to when they saw other itch-related images. The researchers called this effect the ‘scratch response’.

How reliable is the research?

This is a small study, and feelings like itchiness are quite subjective, so we have to be careful not to make too many generalisations about its findings.

What does this mean for me?

These results are interesting and potentially answer a question that sometimes bothers people, especially if you have an allergy or a skin condition. The researchers claim the results suggest that feeling itchy may be influenced by seeing others experiencing an itch, but the desire to scratch is provoked by seeing others scratching.

If you have an allergy or skin condition that causes itchy skin that lasts a long time, there may be treatments that can help. Your doctor or nurse can help you decide what treatment might work best for you.

Published on November 23, 2012

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