What’s causing your itchy skin?

Itchy skin is an unpleasant and often uncontrollable sensation that makes you want to scratch your skin to relieve it. There are many causes of itchy skin, and its impact on daily life can be mild, moderate or severe. A pharmacist is often able to help with advice and over-the-counter medication or medication can be prescribed by your doctor.

Dr Babak Ashrafi Clinical Lead for Service Development

Medically reviewed by

Dr Babak Ashrafi

Last reviewed: 21 Mar 2023

What is Itchy Skin?

Itchy skin is usually an irritating feeling on your skin that makes you want to scratch it. The sensation can be:

  • mild, moderate or severe
  • short-lived or last a long time
  • all over the body or only in a specific area
  • linked to a rash, spot or bite

The medical name for itchy skin is pruritus.

Itchy Skin Symptoms

The main symptom of itchy skin is an itchy or irritating feeling you want to scratch to relieve. Itchy skin can be an unpleasant and uncontrollable sensation.

Itchy skin can occur when you have a rash, dry or cracked skin, blisters or leathery patches on your skin, burns or scars, and bites or swelling.

When should I see a doctor about my itchy skin?

Talk to a doctor about your itchy skin if it:

  • is impacting your daily life
  • keeps coming back or is not getting better
  • occurs all over your body
  • is linked to a new lump, rash or swelling that is worrying you

Why is My Skin So Itchy?

There are many different causes of itchy skin. Common reasons you can get itchy skin include:

  • dry skin
  • prickly heat
  • an allergic reaction to a specific substance
  • skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis
  • fungal skin infections such as athlete’s foot, ringworm or thrush
  • bites from insects or parasites living on the skin
  • hormonal changes during pregnancy and menopause
  • illnesses such as chicken pox or shingles

In rare cases, itchy skin can also be a symptom of a more serious underlying health condition such as an issue with your thyroid, liver or kidney, or cancer. Being depressed can also cause itchy skin for some people.

Bug Bites and Itchy Skin

In the UK, a bite from midges, mosquitoes, bedbugs, fleas, spiders, mites and ticks or a sting from a bee, wasp or hornet can make your skin itch.

The insect bites your skin to make a hole to feed and then releases saliva. The saliva makes the skin around the bite swell and itch.

Midge & mosquito bites are small, red lumps that can swell up and become itchy; sometimes, a blister filled with fluid can develop.

Bed bug bites are most commonly found on the face, neck, hands and arms. The bites are usually grouped and are red and swollen with a dark spot in the centre. In some cases, fluid-filled blisters can develop.

Flea bites are often found in clusters around your lower legs or arms. They are small raised red bumps that are firm to touch; the redness can disappear when you press down on the bite.

Spider bites are uncommon in the UK and leave small puncture marks on your skin. These marks can be painful and swell up. Get medical attention if you have worrying symptoms after a spider bite.

Mite bites are usually found on uncovered skin. They are very itchy red lumps which can develop into blisters.

Tick bites look similar to mosquito bites and usually occur independently (not in a cluster). The bite isn’t painful at first, but swelling, bruising, blistering and itchiness can develop. It can be harder to see a tick bite on brown or black skin than on white skin.

Covering as much of your body as possible when you are in an area with insects that might bite or sting you can help prevent itchy skin from bug bites.

What Skin Conditions Cause Itchy Skin?

Several skin conditions can cause itchy skin. The most appropriate treatment will depend on which skin condition you have.

Dry skin

Skin that has become dry and cracked can be itchy. Keeping your skin moisturised is essential to avoid dry skin.


Eczema is a group of skin conditions that cause dry and itchy skin. You can get eczema all over the body, but it’s common to get it on the hands, backs of knees and elbows. Children may get eczema on their face and scalp. It’s not known what causes eczema. A doctor or pharmacist like Superdrug Online Doctor can recommend the best treatment for your eczema.


Dandruff is a common skin condition where flakes of skin come off your scalp into your hair. Your scalp can feel itchy and dry. You can treat mild dandruff yourself using an anti-dandruff shampoo available in shops or over the counter.


Increased production of skin cells causes psoriasis, which means skin builds up and creates patches with scales of skin. The scales are usually silver or grey, depending on your skin colour; the patches can be itchy and sore.


Ringworm is a common fungal infection affecting skin with an itchy rash. It often looks like a ring on your skin, but it has nothing to do with worms. You can get ringworm on your scalp, feet (called Athlete’s Foot) and groin area (called Jock Itch). It can be treated with antifungal creams that are available over the counter or on prescription.


Folliculitis is an infection of the hair follicles. Small itchy bumps appear near the follicle, which can look like a rash or acne. A doctor can prescribe medication to stop folliculitis if it does not clear up.

Lichen planus

Lichen planus is a rare condition of unknown origin that can affect the skin, mouth and genital areas. When it involves the skin, there are patches of raised and shiny blotches (possibly with fine white lines) on your arms, legs or body. These blotches can be very itchy, but they are not always.

Prurigo nodularis

Prurigo nodularis is a rare but very itchy skin rash with crusted, hard and wart-like bumps. They are usually found on the arms and legs but can be anywhere on the body. Scratching makes the itch worse and can lead to infections. There have been fewer studies on prurigo nodularis than other skin conditions; it is thought to be the itchiest of all itchy skin rashes.

Allergies and Itchy Skin

It is common for an allergic reaction to cause itchy skin. In response to an allergen such as pollen, dust, pet fur or certain chemicals, your body produces histamine. Histamine makes your skin itchy and red.

There are different types of allergic responses:

  • Contact dermatitis occurs when your skin comes into direct contact with something you are allergic to. The skin becomes dry, itchy, cracked and blistered.
  • Hives (called urticaria) are a red, itchy rash that can be harder to see on brown or black skin. Histamine released into the body in response to an allergen causes hives.

Many different substances can cause an allergic reaction, including:

  • pollen
  • pet fur
  • dust
  • ingredients in cosmetics
  • rubber and latex
  • certain metals such as nickel
  • specific medications
  • certain foods

If you are allergic to something, the first recommendation is to avoid the substance where possible. Your doctor will assess your situation and suggest the most appropriate medication.

Medications That Can Cause Itchy Skin

Some medications have the side effect of causing itchy skin. Side effects vary from person to person and in severity, so it’s impossible to predict if taking these drugs will make your skin itch. If you are getting itchy skin when you take a specific medication and it is having a negative impact on your life, talk to your doctor about your options before you decide to stop taking it. Drugs that have the known side effect of itchy skin include: 

  • opioids for pain relief
  • antimalarials
  • ACE inhibitors for high blood pressure
  • amiodarone for heart rhythm problems
  • diuretics to relieve bloating
  • oestrogen
  • over-the-counter pain relief such as ibuprofen
  • simvastatin for high cholesterol
  • drugs to treat cancer, such as tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs) and epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) inhibitors

Nerves and Itchy Skin

In some cases, the nervous system tells the nerves on your skin to itch when nothing has caused it (called neuropathic itch), which can cause your skin to itch. In these cases, there is often no rash linked to the itchy skin. Scratching can make the sensation worse.

Health conditions that can cause a neuropathic itch include:

  • shingles
  • multiple sclerosis
  • stroke
  • brain tumour
  • nerve damage

It can be hard to treat a neuropathic itch because it is not clear what exactly is causing it.

Psychological Causes of Itchy Skin

Psychological conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression and psychosis can cause itchy skin, known as psychogenic itch. It can be hard to determine if a psychological condition causes itchy skin or if something else is the cause. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your mental health and its link to your itchy skin.

Can Itchy Skin be a Symptom of Cancer?

Itchy skin can be a symptom of specific types of cancer, including liver, pancreatic, leukaemia and Hodgkin lymphoma. Usually, the itchy skin will be one of several symptoms rather than occurring on its own. Talk to your doctor if you are worried your itchy skin could be a symptom of cancer.

How to Stop Itchy Skin

There are several different ways to treat itchy skin. A doctor or pharmacist can prescribe you medication, and you can also make lifestyle changes.

If you have a rash making your skin itchy, our skin photo diagnosis service can help you identify the rash and our doctors can prescribe you the proper treatment.

How to stop scratching itchy skin

It can be tough not to scratch itchy skin. The following suggestions can help:

  • Tap or pat your skin.
  • Cover the itchy area to stop you from scratching.
  • If you scratch yourself when you are asleep, wear cotton gloves when you go to bed.
  • Make sure your nails are clean, short and smooth so that if you scratch, you reduce the chance of infection.
  • Hold something cool like a damp flannel on your skin.
  • Use creams or gels that soothe and cool the skin.

Lifestyle changes

Making changes to your lifestyle can help reduce or relieve itchy skin:

  • Dab or pat yourself dry after washing.
  • If you can identify what is causing your skin to itch, avoiding these items or situations can help.
  • Take a short (less than 20 minutes) cool bath or shower, and try not to wash too frequently.
  • Moisturising your skin daily with an unperfumed lotion can stop it from becoming dry and prevent itchy skin.
  • Use a medicated shampoo if you have dandruff.
  • Use washing powder for sensitive skin.
  • Wear loose cotton clothing so air can circulate around your skin. Avoid tight and synthetic or wool fabrics.
  • Stress or anxiety can make itchy skin worse, so techniques that reduce your stress such as yoga, mindfulness, meditation and counselling can help.
  • Avoiding alcohol, caffeine or spicy foods can help as these affect the blood flow to your skin, making the itching worse.
  • A humidifier can help if your environment is dry and aggravates itchy skin.


A pharmacist can help with over-the-counter medications to relieve itchy skin. These include:

  • Emollients that cover the skin with a protective layer trap the moisture in your body. These can be lotions, sprays, creams, ointments and soap substitutes.
  • Allergy medicines (called antihistamines) stop the allergic reaction causing the itchy skin. Note that antihistamines can make you drowsy and that not all antihistamines are suitable for everyone.
  • Corticosteroid creams are usually used for a few days only as they contain a mild steroid.
  • Creams that cool your skin using menthol or have an anti-itch ingredient like crotamiton.

If medication given over-the-counter is not working to relieve the itchy skin, a doctor can prescribe stronger medication.

In some cases, doctors may prescribe antidepressants to help with itchy skin.


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