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Information from Your Family Doctor
What Can I Do for Dry, Itchy Skin?
Am Fam Physician. 2003 Sep 15;68(6):1145-1146.
What causes itchy skin?
Many things can make your skin itch. Dry skin, eczema, and hives can cause itching all over your body. Contact dermatitis is another cause of all-over itching. You can get this condition after your skin comes in contact with something that irritates it, such as a strong laundry soap or a body lotion.
You might feel itchy in only a few parts of your body. Common causes of this kind of itching include insect bites, infections like ringworm or jock itch, and allergies to plants or to the metals in costume jewelry.
Most causes of itchy skin have specific treatments—your doctor will tell you what treatment is best for you.
First, how can I keep my skin from getting dry?
Dry air can cause your skin to become dry and itchy. In your home, use a humidifier to put moisture in the air during the winter and in dry weather.
Some soaps can cause your skin to feel itchy. It's good to use a soap that is unscented and hypoallergenic. This kind of soap does not contain dyes or perfumes that can irritate your skin. In addition, you can use a mild, unscented, hypoallergenic laundry detergent, avoid fabric softeners, and try using an extra rinse cycle to keep your clothes and bed sheets from making your skin itch.
Choose clothing made of soft fabrics like cotton or silk. Avoid wearing clothing made of rough wool, which can irritate your skin and make it itch.
How do I treat dry skin?
Moisturizers work well to treat dry skin. Choose a moisturizer that is hypoallergenic (it should say so on the label). The best moisturizers are also the most “gooey.” Ointments (or oils) are best, followed by creams, and then lotions. Petroleum jelly (example of brand name: Vaseline) is an excellent skin lubricant, but it can be messy to use.
Put a moisturizer on your skin three or four times during the day. Always put the moisturizer on right after you wash or bathe.
If you have very dry hands, put petroleum jelly on them before you go to bed at night and sleep with your hands in cotton-lined gloves.
Changing your bathing habits also can help. If you bathe too often, your skin may get dry. Try to take short, lukewarm baths or showers. Oatmeal baths (example of brand name: Aveeno) may be soothing to your skin. After your bath, pat your skin dry and put a moisturizer on your skin right away. Use a mild soap every day to clean your genital area and under your arms, but clean other parts of your body with soap only two or three times a week.
Some people use bath oils to help make their skin less dry. However, these oils can be dangerous because they make your tub slippery. To avoid slipping and falling, put the oil on your skin after you get out of the bathtub. Plain baby oil works well.
When should I see my doctor because of itchy skin?
Dry, irritated skin is more likely to get infected. Infected skin is red, warm, and swollen, and it may ooze fluid. You may need antibiotics to get rid of this kind of infection.
Severe itching, especially in older adults, sometimes is caused by a serious medical problem. Call your doctor if you are an older person with severe itching that doesn't get better within two weeks and that does not have an obvious cause.
If you have a bad case of poison ivy or a sudden itchy rash, your doctor may be able to prescribe a medicine to help you.
What medicines treat itching?
A moisturizer might be all you need to relieve itching. If a moisturizer does not help enough, you could try using 1 percent hydrocortisone steroid skin cream for a week. If this is not helpful, your doctor may prescribe stronger steroids or antihistamine pills.
If you use a steroid cream for itching, you should not use the medicine for longer than one to two weeks. Be very careful when you put a steroid cream on your face or genital area. Steroid creams may make your skin get very thin and may cause other skin problems. Be sure to talk with your doctor if you are using a steroid cream or ointment to treat your itching.
This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.
Copyright © 2003 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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