Why do we scratch?

Pruritus, or itching, is something we face every day, whether from simple skin irritations or more serious inflammations. What can I do to prevent the condition, and what’s the best way to get rid of it? Spoiler: It’s best not to scratch. This will only generate a cycle of itching and scratching, which can last for a long time and make symptoms worse, even causing bruises.

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What is the itch?

By the medical definition, itching is a burning sensation, or a slight electricity in the skin that is not painful—or the feeling that something is moving under the skin. This is caused by nerve cell stimuli: it is an interaction between the nervous system and the skin, involving proteins and mediators of inflammation.

Itching is a non-painful, irritating sensation on the skin, and it can be caused by a number of different factors (Image: Twenty20photos/Envato Elements)
Itching is a non-painful, irritating sensation on the skin, and it can be caused by a number of different factors (Image: Twenty20photos/Envato Elements)

Chemical signals released into the skin communicate with the pimple via nerves in the skin, which informs the brain of the itch. One of the most common causes is dry skin, which causes microfractures in the epidermis barrier. The cells that signal the nerves present local inflammation, releasing substances such as histamine and quinine. This makes the skin red, swollen and irritates the nerves, causing itching.


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Hives and skin exposure to irritating elements can also generate something similar to dry skin. All this causes irritation and the release of chemical signals by the cells, such as eosinophils and basophils, which in turn irritate the nerves and also make us feel itchy.

Why is scratching good?

The easiest answer to the itch, of course, is to give in to the urge and scratch yourself, though it’s not recommended. Scratching the skin generates a type of pain, albeit a weak one, which sends weak pain signals to the brain. This temporarily distracts the itchy organ, and also releases serotonin in the brain, making it feel good. The problem is that serotonin also resets the itch signal—causing an endless cycle of itching and scratching.

Our natural instinct is to want to eliminate the sensation, as it is annoying, and tactile stimulation is as automatic a response as the kick we give when something hits the middle of the knee. It is an immediate but temporary relief: the itching continues, the cycle repeats itself, and we can end up causing a sore on the spot.

While the temptation to scratch is great, it's best to avoid it and treat itching at its root causes (Image: wayhomestudio/Envato)
While the temptation to scratch is great, it’s best to avoid it and treat itching at its root causes (Image: wayhomestudio/Envato)

What to do when you feel itchy?

There are a few tactics to get rid of a more persistent itch, and we’ll break down the steps after the list:

  • Don’t scratch yourself (seriously);
  • Keep your hands busy;
  • Hydrate the skin;
  • Apply ice;
  • Apply anti-itch creams;
  • Apply a topical corticosteroid;
  • Use an antihistamine.

It seems a little obvious and too simple, but it’s good to hold back the impulses: scratching will only intensify the itching sensation, and it’s better to wait for it to pass or look for the primary cause, fighting it without hurting the skin. To avoid unconscious and continuous scratching, it’s important to keep your hands busy. A stress ball to squeeze or activities that use both hands are good recommendations.

If the skin is dry, use therapeutic moisturizers, which can relieve the sensation relatively quickly. Good anti-itch creams contain substances like pramoxine, capsaicin and menthol. If the skin is inflamed, a physician should be consulted and may prescribe corticosteroids or calcineurin inhibitors.

You can also apply ice (wrapped in fabric or wrap) to the skin for 10 minutes, or take a therapeutic oatmeal bath. Another option is antihistamines, which fight allergies and skin conditions such as hives. Over-the-counter medications include fexofenadine and loratadine, which do not make you sleepy, or chlorpheniramine and diphenhydramine, which eventually cause drowsiness.

If all this does not resolve and the symptoms persist, the recommendation is to visit a dermatologist, keeping in mind that there are several reasons for a more stubborn itching, such as medical conditions, surgeries, medications, supplements, skin care topics, recreational or occupational habits, travel history, and food allergies. It is important to have this information on hand to inform the doctor in the event of a visit.

Read the article on Canaltech.

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