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4 Ways to Treat an Itch

by
author image Jeffrey Benabio
Dr. Jeffrey Benabio is a board-certified dermatologist in San Diego. He is the founder of TheDermBlog.com, a site devoted to making skin care simple. Dr. Benabio was called one of America's top skin care physician's by "O, The Oprah Magazine."

Determine the Cause of the Itching and Eradicate It Itching is one of the most frustrating of all symptoms. Sure, it comes in handy when you are in a mosquito-infested swamp and need to know if you are under assault from bugs; but an itch can also needlessly keep you up all night scratching for hours. When severe, it can be incapacitating--so overwhelming that some people have even taken their own lives to escape its grasp. The most important way to treat an itch is to determine its cause and treat the underlying problem. Many factors can cause itching, and a thorough investigation is sometimes needed to find out what is triggering it. Skin infections and infestations can cause severe itching. Bacterial as well as fungal infections often create itchy bumps on the skin, especially around the hair follicles. Infestations from bugs like scabies or head lice also trigger intense itching that can be maddening. Allergies in the skin are another common cause of itch. When your skin comes in contact with a substance to which you are allergic (such as poison ivy), a red, weepy, itchy rash can result. Many oral medications and supplements can cause an allergic rash from head to toe that is as ugly as it is itchy. Certain diseases of the skin are also characterized by itching. Atopic dermatitis or eczema is sometimes called the itch that rashes, because the itching often develops before any rash is seen on the skin. Other diseases like urticaria (hives) cause pink welts that come and go but can be intensely itchy. Even dry skin can cause severe itching, and is so common in winter that it is simply called “the winter itch.” Directing the treatment to the cause is the most important step in treating itching. Ask any patient with scabies, and he will tell you that no anti-itch cream or pill, however strong, will relieve the itching until the bugs are terminated. Apply Topical Anti-Itching Medications Topical steroid creams, either over-the-counter or prescription, reduce inflammation and itching. Almost all itching that is accompanied by a red rash will improve when treated with steroids. Unlike steroids, however, over-the-counter topical antihistamines such as diphenhidramine (Benedryl) have not been shown to relieve itching. Prescription topical antihistamines like doxepin (Zonalon) are much more potent than the over-the-counter ones, and do work. Sometimes, itching can be improved by cooling the skin. Creams that contain topical menthols, such as Eucerin Calming Creme, reduce itching by creating a cooling sensation. Other creams contain an itch-blocking ingredient. For example, pramoxine (Pramosone), which is found in some prescription anti-itch creams, works by blocking the nerves that produce itch. Topical numbing medications like benzocaine spray stop itching by numbing the skin temporarily. Lastly, topical hot pepper extract, called capsaicin cream, creates a brief, uncomfortable burning sensation, but is very effective in treating itching, especially chronic itching on the forearms or the middle of the back. Take Oral Anti-Itching Medications Histamine is a substance produced by cells in the skin that causes itching when released. It is the primary cause of itching in conditions like urticaria (hives). Oral antihistamines like diphenhidramine (Benedryl) block the release of histamine and control itching caused by hives and other factors. Many antihistamines are also sedating or sleep-inducing. They can help itchy patients get some sleep, which in turn can lessen itching. Prescription oral antihistamines such as doxepin (Adepin) are hundreds of times more potent than the over-the-counter pills and are much more effective, but are also far more sedating. Steroids make up another category of oral anti-itch medications. Oral steroids such as prednisone can be used to treat an itchy rash by calming inflammation all over your body. However, oral steroids have significant side effects, such as weight gain and bone loss, and are best taken for only 2 weeks or less when they are needed. Practice Mind Over Body It is well known that the mind and the body are tightly connected when it comes to itching. Anxiety, stress and sleeplessness all make a bad itch worse. Working out, taking long walks, practicing yoga and meditating all help calm you nervous system--and your itch. Visualizing a cool, blue, soothing sensation on your skin can help lessen the desire to scratch, especially when you are lying in bed. Warm, relaxing baths with colloidal oatmeal can calm you and your skin. Chronic itching can also be seen in patients with anxiety or depression. Anti-depression or anti-anxiety medications are sometimes used not only to improve mood, but also to control itching. Do not despair: Almost all itching can be cured or controlled. Don't hesitate to see your physician. You might have a simple problem that can easily be fixed, saving you many sleepless nights. itch, treatments, antihistamine, steroids, rash, skin

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