There is nothing more annoying and persistent that a hard to reach itch and if the statistics are to be believed more and more of us are scratching away!  If you don’t believe me just look at these stats and facts that we found by googling away….

*Dry Skin

Twenty percent of the population classifies their skin as “Dry” (according to healthy-skincare.com). Dry skin is more likely to become itchy as the skin’s protective barrier is compromised leaving the skin open to irritation from things such as skincare products, environmental allergens, clothing and even temperature variations.

* Allergy

One in five Americans has an allergy (according to WebMD).  This statistic covers all types of allergies – not all allergies cause skin itching BUT the for many allergy sufferers itchy and/or inflamed skin is a symptom. Why?  In allergic people, the presence of something as innocuous as egg white for example can cause the body to go into battle mode. The white cells multiply and the whole body gets ready to attack the foreign invader.   This can end up resulting in patchy, swollen and itchy skin.  Many people that I speak to claim to be allergic to a range of cosmetic ingredients. While I am not a dermatologist, I imagine that most people who claim to have allergies to certain brands / products or chemicals haven’t been fully tested and are therefore relying on a self-diagnosis. While this is a great place to start, skin reactions after using a particular brand or product should always be investigated as it is often one or two components of a product that cause irritation (commonly preservatives and/or some components of a fragrance).  The correct identification of what is causing your particular irritation is crucial in helping you avoid future attacks. Just changing brands, going “natural” or making your own products may not solve your problem. See a dermatologist first!

*Hormonally Yours.

There are times in our life when our hormones seem to be intent in making our life miserable (if we let them!)  Adolescence, pregnancy, general ageing, the menopause, stress and some illnesses can all affect our systems balance (homeostasis).  The degree of severity of the itching and underlying problem depend upon which of the above category you fit!  Itching in adolescence is often due to the skin stretching as well as the temperature fluctuations caused by unpredictable hormone surges. During pregnancy itching can also be due to skin stretching issues  or heat but could also be due to the skin becoming more sensitive due to your system being under additional stress. Finally and more seriously, excessive itching in pregnancy can be a sign of something more serious such as gestational diabetes or pre-enclampsia.  As a rule, itchy skin during pregnancy should always be discussed with your midwife or healthcare provider – just in case!

Itching due to general ageing can be put down to a number of things – the skin gets thinner as we age making it harder for it to keep the outside out! This can lead to you becoming more sensitive to products, environments or foods as each year passes.  As the skin ages it also gets dryer which again adds to the skin’s fragility. Something to keep in mind when applying the make-up! The menopause is a time of fluctuating hormones so, just like when we were adolescent, things can get out of kilter and our skin can rebel. 34 menopause symptoms offer help in this area.

*Taking the weight off.

One of the least talked about side effects of putting on a few pounds are those annoying itches!  As your body gets larger, there is more of it to chafe, the body’s temperature control may not work quite as efficiently and it is harder to keep everywhere dry. While itching won’t affect everyone carrying a little extra weight, for those that are suffering, a little extra care in the way of clothing choice and soothing bath and skin products should see those itches on their way!

*Solar Stimulation

Had a bit too much sun? Your skin may reward you with a good dose of itchiness.  Your skin is perfectly able to look after its self in the great outdoors but we have developed many tactics for ignoring its little cries for help!  Too much sun sets the skin into overdrive, the immune system  turns down to prevent us going into massive over-reaction territory and the melanin cells kick into action.  We burn as a result of enjoying more sun than our skin can handle and it is the burnt skin that itches. The burnt skin turns on our immune response and histamine ensures that our once peaceful skin starts to prickle and itch, which is altogether very unhelpful, as scratching away at our newly inflicted burns is the last thing that we need!

While the odd sunburn may be an inconvenient itch, it can lead to something far more dangerous.  One of the symptoms of some (but not all) skin cancers is itching. If you think that your itching could be linked to sun damage, please see a dermatologist as soon as possible.

*The great outdoors.

Our beautiful planet can sometimes present some natural and us with challenges, some fabricated. Insect stings, some plants and the occasional animal encounter can create itchy conditions, some of which disappear relatively quickly and some, which require a more considered look.  Add to that the itch making things that are self created – environmental pollutants, cleaning chemicals, personal care products, materials (such as latex) and you can end up with an sensitive skin assault course.  It is no wonder that we are just itching to get some relief! With such a wide variety of scenario’s it is impossible to suggest one solution however, there are a few things that may help!

And we haven’t even covered parasites or a whole raft of diseases…..

The Stop Itch Meeting Place.

OK, so as discussed above, itching can be caused by a wide variety of things, situations and scenario’s therefore it is imperative that the cause of the itch be established first.  After that, you could try:

1) Make sure that you bathe in luke warm water rather than having it really hot. Piping hot water may seem relaxing but it dries out your skin and a compromised skin barrier is an itches best friend!

2) Wash on the soft side.  Add some oatmeal to your bath!  Oatmeal is cheap, quite easy to get hold of and a great natural moisturizer. It can be scooped directly into the bath to soften the water or can be hung in an old stocking on the bath taps to treat water as it runs over it. Don’t feel like making your own?  Your pharmacist can direct you to some off the shelf soap free products that have been developed for very sensitive skin. Soap dry’s the skin (as it emulsifies the natural oils, which are on the skin’s surface). If your skin is already dry, it is important not to stress it out by removing its protection. Soap free is the way to go.

3) Wash less often! We have become obsessed with hygiene, which is not always a good thing. I remember when I had my babies I ended up with terrible dermatitis on my hands. Why? Because I went from washing my hands about 5 times a day to washing them at least 15 times a day then topping it off with an antibacterial rinse.  When changing nappies or using the loo washing hands is essential but for other chores, some rubber gloves lined with cotton inners can be a lifesaver.

4) Protect yourself from temperature extremes. Dress in natural fabrics in layers so that you can quickly remove or add layers to suit your surroundings. Sounds simple but all too often our skin is left over-exposed to the sun and over-swaddled for central heated home life!

5) Moisturize.  Very sensitive skin will need to be treated with care, as the itchiest of skin will find even the gentlest of moisturizers a trifle uncomfortable. Vegetable oils such as Macadamia or Jojoba are great for dry and sensitive skin as they are very similar in chemistry to the skins natural moisturizing factor.  For those looking for something creamier your pharmacist can point you in the direction of an aqueous base or barrier cream to help keep you in order.

Like any health issue, your general health and wellbeing will affect your ability to manage your itch. Good nutrition and hydration are a given as is getting plenty of sleep and not being stressed out (stress hormones do itch). Finally and importantly, the mind also has an important place to play in the itch cycle and should not be overlooked or trivialized. While many external forces will result in an itch starting, the mind can often help to calm our response to the stimuli. Visualization, positive thinking and overall calming techniques may all be worth looking into.

As an eczema sufferer of thirty plus years standing, I understand and respect the power of the itch.  It would be great to hear your views and strategies on controlling your itchy daemons. In the meantime, I am going to try out some chamomile tea and a little visualization.