Causes of Burning and Itching Skin

Burning and itching sensations in the skin frequently occur together. The interaction of these unpleasant sensations is complex but appears to be at least partially based on shared chemical and physical triggers. Additionally, itchiness typically leads to scratching, which can damage the skin and lead to mixed burning and itching sensations. The extensive list of possible causes of these symptoms are broadly divided into those associated with a skin abnormality and subsequent inflammation versus those that are not related to a skin abnormality.

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Skin Infections and Infestations

Itchiness and burning frequently accompany skin infections and infestations. These sensations occur due to inflammation of the skin. A few of the most common or well known examples include:

  • Folliculitis (infection of the hair follicles)
  • Vaginal yeast infections
  • Jock itch
  • Ringworm
  • Athlete's foot
  • Head and pubic lice
  • Scabies (an infestation with itch mites)

Skin Disorders

Itchiness, possibly accompanied by burning, is a key feature of several skin disorders. Again, these sensations are triggered by inflammation of the skin. Some of the most common skin disorders associated with these skin symptoms include:

  • Atopic dermatitis (also known as hereditary eczema): This chronic skin condition tends to preferentially affect the neck, face, and the skin folds of the elbows and knees.
  • Contact dermatitis: This itchy skin rash occurs at sites of direct contact with an irritating or allergy-provoking substance.
  • Psoriasis: This immune-mediated skin condition causes an increased rate of skin turnover leading to sore skin patches that typically itch and might burn.

Other skin disorders that characteristically cause itchiness and possibly burning include seborrheic dermatitis, neurodermatitis, lichen planus and dermatitis herpetiformis, a skin condition that develops in 15 to 25 percent of people with celiac disease (gluten-sensitive enteropathy).

Medical Disorders

A wide and diverse range of medical diseases and disorders can potentially cause chronic itchiness that may be accompanied by a burning sensation. Some of the more common and familiar examples include:

  • Liver disease, especially disorders associated with obstructed bile flow
  • Advanced kidney disease and kidney failure
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Thyroid disease, including both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism
  • Iron deficiency anemia or iron overload (hemochromatosis)
  • Leukemia, lymphoma and multiple myeloma
  • Cancer of the lung, colon, breast, prostate, brain, uterus, cervix or stomach
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Brain tumor
  • Stroke
  • Nerve compression
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Herpes infections, including oral and genital herpes, chickenpox and shingles

Next Steps and Treatment

Short-term, localized burning and itching of the skin caused by something obvious -- such as bee or wasp sting, or getting into some poison ivy -- can usually be managed at home with over-the-counter topical treatments. Persistent or unexplained burning and itching sensations, however, requires medical evaluation. This is particularly important if your skin sensations are accompanied by other signs and symptoms, which might include:

  • New rash, with or without blisters
  • Fever, chills or shivering
  • Unexplained change in weight
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Abdominal pain or bloating
  • Frequent or persistent diarrhea
  • Painful urination, or a change in the amount of urine produced
  • Weakness or clumsiness

An accurate diagnosis is the first step in alleviating these troublesome symptoms. Treatment depends on the underlying cause of your discomfort and might include topical creams or ointments, oral medication, or a combination of these and possibly other therapies. When itchiness and burning is caused by a medical disorder, effective treatment of the underlying condition often alleviates these symptoms.

Reviewed and revised by: Tina M. St. John, M.D.

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