9 Causes of Itching

Itching can drive anyone bonkers when severe or persistent enough. And unfortunately, because it can stem from many organs and medical conditions, it can be challenging to determine the cause of itching. Learn about 9 more common causes of itching that drive patients to the doctor's office.

Sanaz Majd, MD
6-minute read
Episode #231

Itching is definitely one of the most annoying symptoms. It can interfere with sleep, which is a vital component of our health. It can interfere with your occupation, especially if your job requires frequent contact with other people. It can interfere with your mental state. It can impair your quality of life and become debilitating.

At the same time, it’s also one of those symptoms where the cause may be a challenge to pinpoint. This is largely because numerous medical conditions, spanning various organs, can cause itching.

9 Causes of Itching

The fancy medical term to describe itching within the medical field is called “pruritis.” You will certainly impress your nurse and doctor if you walk into your doctor’s office and state that you are suffering from “pruritis.” Here are nine common causes of itching:

1. Allergic Reactions:  Allergic reactions often cause “urticaria,” a distinct rash consisting of hives. These are typically pink/red spots that appear and disappear within the same day on various parts of the body. They can be caused by certain hygiene products, such as detergent, shampoo, soap, moisturizer, etc. And they can also be induced by consumed foods, such as nuts, seafood, and exotic fruits (some of the more common allergy-causing foods).

2. Medication Side Effects:  Medications can also induce a rash that itches. The rash can be anything from mild to severe. A feared medication rash within the medical community is a condition called “Stevens Johnson’s Syndrome,” which is a rare reaction that causes a painful rash with scaling, peeling, along with blisters in the mouth, nose, and genitals. It’s severe enough to typically land patients in the hospital. Certain medications are more prone to cause allergic reactions, such as sulfa drugs (and other antibiotics) and penicillins, anti-seizure drugs, and blood pressure medications. However, any medication can cause an allergic reaction, even one that you’ve been taking on a chronic basis.

3. Dry Skin:  Dry skin is one of the most common causes of skin itching. It seems so simple, but it is very real. It is especially prevalent in dry, low-humidity regions like Southern California. And it tends to be worse in the wintertime. The answer to it is fortunately an easy one – moisturize. Finding a good oil based moisturizer and applying it several times a day is often sufficient enough to keep your itching at bay. Minimize hot water contact as much as possible, limit your showers to 5 minutes or less, and use a mild moisturizing soap like Dove or Cetaphil.

4. Eczema: Eczema is a step or two up in acuity from dry skin. It’s severe dry skin, enough to cause a visible rash. It is more common in those with asthma and allergiesthe genes tend to be inherited together. Eczema is common on the face in infants, but rare in adults. In adults, it most often affects the flexor elbows, the inner aspects along the folds and the back of the knees. Eczema is a red, pink, thick, scaling rash, and may contain scratch marks from the itching. It is often easily treated, and you can check out my previous episode on treatment recommendations.

5.  Contact Dermatitis:  The word “derm” refers to the skin, and “-itis” means inflammation. Therefore “dermatitis” simply means the inflammation of the skin. Also, the word “contact” denotes direct skin contact to an allergen that causes a reaction. And “contact dermatitis” is the inflammation of the skin caused by anything that comes into contact with the skin. A classic example is Poison Ivy. We all know that contact with this nasty plant can cause a rash, and hence, a rather severe itch. Treatment requires a steroid cream prescribed by your doctor. Other common culprits: nickel and metals, especially on pant belts, cleaning solutions and chemicals, cosmetics, and various topicals.


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.