What’s making your skin itch?

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Psoriasis on the back of a females back
Psoriasis on the back of a females back
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Many men are prone to ignore medical issues until they develop into serious problems. Take persistently itchy skin, for example. Chances are it’s just a minor thing, but if you’re unlucky there could be much more severe underlying medical causes that should be attended to as soon as possible to minimise the damage.

So rather than scratching your itch until the cows come home, why don’t you do something about it right now? Itchy skin may sound trivial, but the more you know about it the faster you’ll find relief.

A multitude of causes

Itchy skin – the medical term is pruritus – can vary enormously in intensity, frequency and duration and it can affect a tiny little spot or your entire body. Some of the many possible causes include the following:

- a skin condition like eczema, psoriasis, dandruff, or prurigo;

- an allergic reaction to certain fabrics, cosmetics, dyes, metals, food or medications;

- insect bites;

- a fungal infection like thrush (yes, men can get it, too), ringworm or athlete’s foot;

- some chronic long-term conditions like liver disease, thyroid problems and certain cancers;

- parasites like lice or scabies (a contagious skin condition where tiny mites burrow into the skin);

- the common cold;

- dry skin (xerosis)

- hormonal changes or disorders;

- contact with irritants like chemicals, detergents, poison ivy or stinging nettles;

- sunburn;

- conditions affecting the nervous system such as multiple sclerosis, shingles, pinched nerves or diabetes;

- excessive sweating;

- psychological causes like anxiety or stress;

- nutritional deficiencies including iron and vitamin A deficiencies.

DIY treatment

Once the cause has been identified you can treat your itch using a number of tried and tested methods that will help to calm and sooth your skin, such as:

- applying a good quality moisturising lotion;

- using wet compresses using a damp, cool cloth;

- having a cool shower or bath (adding some baking soda or uncooked oatmeal to the bath helps);

- using mild soaps without perfumes or dyes;

- wearing smooth-textured, loose-fitting cotton clothing;

- using mild, unscented washing powder to wash bedding, towels and clothes; and

- applying ice packs.

When to see a doctor

It might not be easy to identify the true cause of your itch and you should consult a doctor or skin specialist (dermatologist) if the condition lasts for more than two weeks and doesn’t respond to any of the self-care measures listed above. You should also see a doctor if the itch affects your entire body, is so severe that it prevents you from functioning effectively and living your life in comfort, or if other symptoms include weight loss, fever or extreme tiredness.

If the itching is accompanied by a difficulty in breathing and a swelling of the tongue and face, it may be due to a severe allergic reaction and anaphylaxis – a life threatening emergency that should be attended to by a medical professional immediately.

Medication

Depending on the prognosis, your doctor may prescribe one of the following types of medication or treatments to deal with your itchy skin:

- antihistamines like Benadryl (generic: diphenhydramine), Atarax (hydroxyzine) or Claritine (loratidine) in the case of allergies;

- corticosteroid creams to sooth the itching;

-  topical local anaesthetics like Lidocaine or Benzocain or ointments containing menthol, camphor or calamine to provide short-term relief;

- light therapy, involving the exposure of the affected areas of skin to certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light for several sessions; or

- medication to treat an underlying disease such as kidney or thyroid problems.

What to avoid

Steer clear of heat, humidity and itchy fabrics (including polyester and wool) and whatever you do, do scratch!

Read more:

Taking the itch out of eczema

How to manage psoriasis

How do I get rid of my eczema?

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