Itching is an unpleasant sensation that compels a person to scratch the affected area. Mild to moderate itching is a common symptom but occasionally may be severe and frustrating. The medical name for itching is pruritus.

Itching can affect any area of the body. It can either be:

  • generalised – where itching occurs over the whole body
  • localised – where itching only occurs in a particular area

Sometimes, there is a rash or a spot where the itching occurs.

Common causes of itching

Itching can be caused by a number of different conditions. For example:

Read more detailed information about possible causes of itching.

Things you can do

In many cases, treating the underlying condition will ease the itching. However, there are things you can do to relieve itching, including:

  • using a cold compress, such as a flannel
  • applying calamine lotion to the affected area
  • using unperfumed personal hygiene products
  • bathing in cool water
  • not wearing clothes that irritate your skin, such as wool or man-made fabrics 
  • keeping skin moist

There are also medicines such as antihistamines and steroid creams that may help to relieve the symptoms of itching caused by certain skin conditions.

Read more about treatments to relieve itching.

When to see your GP

Many cases of itching will get better over a short period of time. However, it is important to visit your GP if your itching is not improving or is affecting your quality of life.

You should see your GP if your itching is:

  • severe
  • lasts for a long time
  • keeps coming back
  • is associated with other symptoms, such as breathing problems, skin inflammation or jaundice

Also visit your GP as soon as possible if your entire body itches and there is no obvious cause. It could be a symptom of a more serious condition.

Your GP may carry out tests to determine the cause of the itching, such as:

  • a skin scraping – the affected area of skin is scraped to obtain a sample, which can be analysed to help diagnose a skin condition
  • a vaginal or penile swab if a yeast infection is suspected; a small plastic rod with a cotton ball on one end will be used to obtain the sample
  • blood test to see if the cause is an underlying disease, such as diabetes, thyroid or kidney disease
  • biopsy – the area is numbed and a tissue sample is removed for analysis

How to avoid scratching

Scratching can damage the skin and irritate it further, which can make it painful and more itchy. These tips might help you avoid scratching: 

  • rub or press the affected area with your palm
  • keep the itchy skin moist with an emollient, which makes scratching less damaging to the skin

It's not easy to avoid scratching, so keep your nails short and clean. Nails should be filed not clipped; clipped nails can often have jagged edges that could damage your skin when scratching.

Page last reviewed: 08/11/2012

Next review due: 08/11/2014