Why Do We Itch?

By Pebbles Mendoza


Boracay’s empty beaches may have been void of human tourists for the past eight months, but there appears to be the reappearance of a multitude of sand flies. I took the family down to the beach at Station 3 last Monday, and we all suffered badly from bites on our legs and back. Some of the bites, which became very itchy, became inflamed and looked very nasty. Especially the ones on my legs, and I couldn’t stop scratching them, which only led to them becoming more red and inflamed.


The average person scratches an itch several dozen times a day. It’s a good thing, because it’s one of the ways our body tells us something is amiss, such as when a bug is having a free meal at our expense or we touched something we shouldn’t, like poison ivy. Dry skin, allergies, eczema and other skin diseases are common causes of itching, but sometimes it can indicate a more serious health condition, and other times we may be scratching an itch that doesn’t exist! Here are little-known causes that might make you scratch your head in disbelief!


Medications

Another likely suspect when there’s nothing visibly wrong with your skin is the side effect of medications you may be taking. The list of medications associated with itchiness is quite long, and it includes narcotic pain medications (like opioids), antibiotics, antifungals, antimalarials, diuretics (for bloating), estrogen and certain brands of gout and high blood pressure or cholesterol medication. If the itching is an issue for you, be sure to check with your doctor first before changing medications or dosage.


Thyroid Problems

If something is wrong in how the body stores and uses energy, such as in low thyroid hormone levels or hypothyroidism, cells that undergo rapid turnover, such as skin and hair follicles, may take longer to regrow. This means that dead cells making up our outer skin take longer to shed, resulting in dry, flaky, itchy skin. One study showed that three out of four low-thyroid individuals had dry skin, and half of them reported that the skin problem worsened in the course of a year.


Diabetes

Skin problems, including dry, itchy skin, are sometimes the first signs of diabetes. High glucose (or blood sugar) levels can cause dry skin, which may be exacerbated by an infection or poor circulation. When poor blood flow is the problem, it’s often itchiest on the feet and lower legs. Doctors advise taking shorter baths or showers, and using mild soap and moisturizers or lotions to help keep the skin soft and moist, and to soothe the itchiness.


Liver Disease

Itching is often a secondary condition to liver disease such as cirrhosis. When a damaged liver produces too much bile, the buildup in the blood ultimately finds its way to the skin, which causes itchiness on any part of the body, but usually in the tummy area. A dysfunctional liver may also fail to effectively filter medicines you may be taking for another health condition, leading to an unhealthy buildup of medications in the body and increasing the risk of side effects, including itching.


Iron Deficiency

If we don’t have enough iron in our system, we will likely suffer from anemia. Aside from tiredness, weakness and shortness of breath, iron deficiency may also cause itchy skin. It can also make the skin susceptible to bruising, which then makes scratching inadvisable. Fortunately, iron deficiency is easy (and yummy!) to remedy; aside from supplements, doctors say we just need to eat more iron-rich foods, such as red meat, liver, oysters and dark chocolate.


Shingles

If you’ve haven’t had chicken pox, you don’t have to worry. Shingles, also called herpes zoster, is a viral infection of a nerve and the skin surface it supplies; even if just a single nerve is infected, the itchy rash can appear in bands on the skin called dermatomes. Aside from the itchiness, it can be painful, ranging from a dull, constant pain to a sharp, stabbing pain that comes and goes. Shingles is caused by the chicken pox virus which remains dormant inside the body long after sufferers recover from the disease.


Restless Legs Syndrome

Sufferers of restless legs syndrome (also called Willis-Ekbom disease) may experience itching as an accompaniment to uncomfortable or unpleasant sensations in the legs and an irresistible urge to move them. Its symptoms tend to appear in the late afternoon or evening, and worsen at night when the sufferer is resting. Aside from the itchiness, sufferers commonly feel tingling, crawling, creeping or aching sensations deep under the skin. Experts are still not certain about its cause, but a leading candidate is a brain chemistry snafu that involves dopamine.


Psychiatric Disease

Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder can cause itchy skin or make the itchiness from another condition worse. It can also make it harder to stop scratching, which may lead to more itching and possible self-injury. An extreme example is delusory parasitosis or Ekbom syndrome, in which sufferers believe the body is infested with invisible bugs, worms, mites or other creepy crawly parasites. Maybe even aliens!


Like it or not, it’s an itchy-scratchy world. Think about it and be honest: how many times did you scratch an itch since you began reading this article? Probably quite a few, but don’t worry - it’s quite normal. Just reading about it can make some people feel itchy! In any case, doctors say that itching shouldn’t be a real issue unless it doesn’t go away after a month or starts to affect your quality of life. More often than not, it can simply be remedied by moisturizers, bug sprays, good hygiene, proper posture, keeping your premises clean and, oh yes, having that good old back-scratcher handy!

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