What is Itchy Skin?

Pruritus, the medical term for itchiness, is a symptom of another condition. It is a side effect, not a separate disease.  Itchy skin results from a variety of causes varying in severity, including skin growths, rashes, and systemic illnesses.

What Causes Itchy Skin?

Itching occurs for many potential reasons. The only way to effectively treat itchiness is by identifying (and treating) the underlying cause.

Potential causes of itchiness include:

Skin Growth

If a growth itches, we can likely remove it. Sometimes, growths like seborrhea keratosis itch and burn. In these cases, we remove the growth and eliminate the itching entirely.


Psoriasis produces red, itchy plaques that can be extremely bothersome. With continuing advancements in psoriasis treatments, we can effectively treat these plaques with topical, oral, and light-based therapies.


Itchy skin can point to a reaction that has produced a rash. Rashes occurs for many reasons that range from fungal infections to poison ivy to skin cancer. The only way to know what may have prompted a persistent rash is to have a professional evaluate it.


The most common reason patients experience itchy skin is due to atopic dermatitis (eczema). Eczema plagues about 10% of people at any given time. It’s particularly common for children ages six and under.

Eczema occurs due to an overactive immune system that clusters with sinus problems, asthma, and seasonal allergies. Basically, the immune system bubbles up into the skin, presenting itchy red rashes in the folds of the skin including elbows, armpits, back so the knees, and under the eyes.

To clear eczema, we have a variety of topical, oral, and injectable treatments available.

Dry Skin Eczema

A slightly different version of atopic dermatitis is a condition brought about by excessive showering. This presents as a uniformly itchy, burning, and scratchy rash.

When we identify dry skin eczema, we try to eliminate the contributing factors like excessive bathing and harsh soaps. We then add cortisone, therapeutic interventions, and moisturizers to reverse the damage to the skin.

Autoimmune Disorders

Itchy skin can also result from autoimmune disorders that fight the skin and produce rashes and blisters. We diagnose these systemic disorders with biopsies and institute treatments internally to slow down the over-active immune system.


Itchy skin can be the result of an infestation such as knits or lice. Once the infestation is treated, the itch will gradually resolve.

Internal Illness

In extreme situations, itching can be a secondary sign of a serious disease such as kidney failure, liver disease, cancer, or lymphoma. If a provider suspects one of these illnesses as the root cause, they will recommend further evaluation.

Nerve-Based Itch

If we’ve ruled out infection, infestation, inflammation, autoimmune, dermatitis, cancer, irritated growth, we evaluate nerve issues.

No matter the cause of the itch, we always try to comfort the patient with anti-itch treatments while working to identify the root problem. Anytime the skin is itchy, it’s an indicator that something else is likely happening in the body. The sooner we identify the cause, the more effectively we can treat the itch.

What Are The Treatment Options for Itchy Skin?

After we make the diagnosis for why the itch exists, we decide how to treat.

Skin Growth Removal

For individual skin growths that cause an itch, we treat the itch by addressing the growth.

There are a variety of removal techniques including:

Anti-Inflammatory Creams

For most itchy rashes, we treat first with cortisone creams. We also have the option of a few non-cortisone treatments that work to eliminate inflammation. These are more sustainable over time, as compared to intermittent use of a steroid cream.

Antibiotics and Antivirals

If you have itch because of a secondary infection, we will likely treat the infection with antibiotics or antivirals. For example, patients who have shingles may come in initially for their itchy skin. If we identify groups of red blisters as shingles, we treat the viral reaction with an antiviral medication and the itchy, burning pain with a nerve blocker.

What Should You Expect During Treatment?

When you come in for an evaluation of your itchy skin, be prepared to show the doctor how your condition has progressed. The more information you can provide your dermatologist, the quicker they’ll be able to make a diagnosis.

  • Bring the list of treatments you’ve tried. How did your skin react?
  • Bring pictures of how your rash has progressed. What does it look like at its worse? Take pictures on your phone to document to document its changes. When we see documented changes, we can more quickly make progress towards an accurate diagnosis and specific therapy.

Once we make a diagnosis and start a treatment routine, expect to be an active participant in your skin care. Follow our recommendations in applying topical medicine, taking oral medication, and in some cases using injectable medicine to treat the root of the issue.

Be patient — it takes time for the skin to heal. Many skin reactions are delayed hypersensitive rashes. They take time to ramp up and will take time to disappear.

Also, be weary of self-diagnosing. You can make the problem worse if you’ve mis-attributed the problem to detergent, diet, or something in your immediate environment.

Be open to hearing a more accurate diagnosis from the dermatologist. Then, be ready to follow a treatment regimen and eliminate the true sources of the problem.


What side effects should I expect with these medications?

We always counsel patients on the parameters for using topical steroids or oral medications.

Many oral medications we prescribe for itchy skin make you tired. In fact, that’s how they work best. You don’t have the energy to scratch the skin and further irritate it through the night. We try to balance this with the reality of how the patient needs to function.

When we give steroids, you may experience elevated blood sugar, altered mood, increased appetite, weight gain, or bloating.

Yes, these are unpleasant side effects, but these medications have their place in eliminating itch.

What type of fungus is causing the itch?

As humans, we’re generally afraid of fungus. However, itch is rarely caused by fungus. The vast majority of itchy skin is due to some type of inflammation.

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