Introduction 

Itching is an unpleasant sensation that compels a person to scratch the affected area. 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 may be a rash or spot where the itching occurs.

Mild, short-lived itching is common, but the problem can occasionally be severe and very frustrating to live with.

Common causes of itching

Itching can be caused by a number of different conditions, including:

Read more about the possible causes of itching.

Things you can do

If you experience troublesome itching, there are some things you can do that may help relieve it and prevent damage caused by scratching, including:

  • patting or tapping the itchy area, rather than scratching it
  • holding a cold compress, such as damp flannel, over the affected area to cool it down
  • bathing or showering in cool or lukewarm water
  • using unperfumed personal hygiene products
  • avoiding clothes that irritate your skin, such as wool or man-made fabrics
  • using a moisturiser or emollient if your skin is dry or flaky

There are also medicines, such as antihistamines and steroid creams, that are available over the counter from pharmacies that may help relieve 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, you should visit your GP if your itch is:

  • severe
  • lasts for a long time
  • keeps coming back
  • associated with other symptoms – such as redness and swelling or jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)

You should also visit your GP if your entire body itches and there is no obvious cause. It could be a symptom of a more serious condition.

Your GP will ask you about your symptoms – for example, if you have noticed whether anything makes your itch worse, or if your itch comes and goes. They will also examine your skin to look for any visible symptoms.

In some cases, they may take a skin scraping or a swab so it can be tested to help identify the cause of your itching. A blood test may also be carried out to look for underlying problems, such as thyroid or kidney disease.

Depending on what is found to be causing your itch, you may be referred to a hospital specialist for a further assessment and specific treatment. 

Page last reviewed: 11/11/2014

Next review due: 11/11/2016