Itching may seem like nature's way of driving you mad, but the sensation was actually designed to keep you safe. By sparking the urge to scratch, your skin is demanding attention (not unlike a screaming toddler!) to help protect it from an offender of some kind, like microbes or insects.
Itching can start with a direct physical stimulus like a wool sweater that brushes against skin sensitive to its texture, while an internal stimulus like a release of histamine during an allergic reaction is another frequent trigger. It can even begin in your mind’s imagination; seeing someone else scratching can literally make you feel itchy too! And during the winter, dry skin brought on by cold air and low humidity levels can make you feel relentlessly itchy.
No matter the trigger, C-fiber nerves that are located just below the skin's surface are activated and then send the urgent signal to itch to your brain. Scratching that spot may feel like utter bliss at first, but often only ends up making the feeling worse by further irritating your skin. And then the feeling returns with vengeance, stronger than ever. The better way to seek relief is to get to the root of the itch.
The Four Routes to Relief
Unless you have the willpower of a juice cleanser, I know that most people can’t help but scratch a little. For the occasional itch, be careful not to be abrasive with your nails. And before you get too carried away, seek out one of these longer-term solutions as soon as possible for lasting comfort. Your skin will thank you!
Desert-dry skin, the most common cause of itching, needs moisture. Water on the skin’s surface can have a dehydrating effect as it evaporates. Since lotions are more than 70 percent water and creams are about 50 percent, it’s wiser to go with the richer, more emollient cream base. Steer clear of highly fragranced formulas that can dry skin out with perfume and ultimately do more harm than good.
2. Use an antihistamine
The two biggest culprits of histamine-triggered itching are seasonal allergies and those annoying mosquito bites. Look for a non-sedating antihistamine for daytime relief that won’t make you feel drowsy. I recommend Claritin and Zyrtec to my patients. And don’t forget that bug spray next time!
3. Try a topical corticosteroid
This class of drug is similar to cortisol, a hormone your adrenal glands produce to counter inflammation inside your body. Corticosteroids stop itching from inflammatory causes, like eczema, allergic reactions, poison ivy and rashes. See your dermatologist to assess whether you need a prescription if you don’t find relief from over-the-counter options for these conditions.
4. Draw an oatmeal bath
Sometimes momma knows best: This home remedy really does work. Oatmeal is packed with natural anti-inflammatory properties that help soothe itchy skin. The oatmeal must be 100 percent colloidal to work most effectively. Sprinkle about a tablespoon under running tap water, and enjoy a warm soak for 15 to 20 minutes. Towel dry and immediately moisturize after stepping out of the tub to lock in hydration.
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