Have you ever wondered why you itch? Especially when an itch seems to come at the most random time – like when you have both hands full and can’t scratch at it! So, why do we itch?
What Is An Itch?
If you’ve ever stopped and wondered, “Why does skin itch?” then it’s time to take a closer look. What is an itch, anyway?
It’s a sensation that occurs when nerves around your skin cells become irritated. An itch is part of the body’s early warning system that something may be harmful to us.
So, what causes a random itch? Well, it involves the activation of nerve fibers known as C-fibers. Turns out, these C-fibers are identical to your skin’s pain receptors. But C-fibers have one purpose: to convey an itch.
Why We Must Scratch an Itch
Once stimulated, these fibers carry the message along the nerves all the way to your brain. And if you’re wondering, “Why do we scratch?” – well, here’s the kicker: it’s the brain’s fault.
The brain makes us scratch that itch in what is essentially a reflex response. But it’s a response that’s meant to purely bring awareness that something is irritating you.1 It’s not an open invitation to start wreaking fingernail havoc on your skin. If you break the skin you could cause an infection.
Things That Can Make You Scratch
An itch isn’t always due to something external, like rubbing up against a prickly tree. Let’s have a look at some of the most common reasons why those nerve cells are telling your brain to itch:
- External causes: bug bites, plants, parasites in water (like swimmer’s itch), and drugs
- Physical causes: dry skin, hives, and skin conditions, like psoriasis and atopic dermatitis
- Systemic causes: nerve problems and allergic reactions; histamines are released as a warning sign of disease in the body2
The body’s itch trigger is amazing. It’s driven by nerve cells that have nothing to do with the skin. One incredible example of this is phantom itching. It happens when someone missing a limb can actually still feel itching where the limb once was.3
Scratching an Itch
Now, even though the brain just told you to scratch that itch, it’s only letting you know that the itch is there. Scratching and rubbing an itch will only provide temporary relief. And scratching an itch can also make itching worse.
After that first scratch, you feel a little relief, right? Well, this is because itching causes what is considered “mild pain.” So, this confuses the nerve cells for a bit, and they transfer pain signals back to your brain instead.
Your brain then sends out serotonin (the “happy chemical”) to defuse the pain. That all sounds quite lovely… except releasing serotonin could also kickstart other nerve cells, making the itching worse.4 Scratching can cause damage to the skin cells, which can not only create infections, but also initiate more itching.
What Is Chronic Itch?
Chronic itch can be a relentless, ongoing urge to scratch. It affects up to 15% of the population and is most often caused by inflammatory skin conditions. But not always.
Liver or kidney issues, or nerve disorders can also cause chronic itch. And worst of all, in some cases, no explanation for chronic itch is ever found. Researchers are working on medications that may offer hope to chronic itch sufferers.5
Why Do We Itch – Finding Help
So, why do we itch? Well, we can blame our nerves more than our skin. But our nerves are just doing their best to protect our bodies from potential dangers.
At times, it can feel like you have itches for days, but the best thing you can do is to avoid scratching. Instead, you should:
- Keep your skin well moisturized.
- Apply a cold, wet cloth to try to reduce the need to scratch.
- Try cooling agents, like calamine lotion, menthol, or even cold aloe vera gel for relief.
But if itching persists, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can help find the cause of your itching, and give you some medications and treatments for sweet relief!
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