What your itch can reveal about your health – from ancient Egyptian ailment to cancer | The Sun

WHEN an itch strikes, it can be hard to ignore – but frustrating if it’s somewhere you can’t get to.

But what do these itches mean? And can they reveal more about our health than we may think?

Before you worry, do keep in mind that itching IS normal.

Dr Ross Perr, GP & Medical Director of Cosmedics skin clinics, explains: “Itching is normal for all of us; sometimes it’s something we do out of habit, or merely a piece of clothing which is irritating us causing us to itch.

“Stress and anxiety may also cause individuals to itch random parts of the body without even realising they’re doing it. 

“Scientifically, an itch usually happens following a simple touch on the hairy parts of our bodies; our natural reaction is to move our hand to the source and scratch. This is also our body’s way of attempting to protect us from damage to the skin from insects and parasites.”

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Keen to know what your itch might mean? Dr Perr reveals the in and outs…

1. Itchy head

Cause: Dandruff, eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, head lice, not rising shampoo or conditioner properly

Dr Perr says: “Having dandruff is treatable with anti-dandruff shampoos which will also help with the itching. 

“Eczema and psoriasis can be harder to manage and is often genetic.

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“However, your GP should be able to advise you on moisturising creams and ointments to alleviate symptoms, and depending on the severity, oral medication.”

According to the NHS, ‘psoriasis typically causes patches of skin that are dry and covered in scales’. These patches can look pink or red, and the scales white or silvery – but on brown or black skin, the patches can also look purple or dark brown, and the scales may look grey.

Dr Perr adds that for seborrheic dermatitis, which causes scaly patches and dandruff, a corticosteroid lotion will help.

“Again seek the advice from your GP.”

He adds: “Head lice can cause one of the worst itching to the scalp but is entirely treatable with over-the-counter targeted chemical treatments to kill the lice.”

2. Itchy feet

Cause: Dry skin, athlete’s foot, eczema, contact dermatitis, scabies, diabetes, liver disease and kidney disease

Use a thick moisturise after showering or taking a bath to see if the culprit is simply dry skin. 

Speaking of Athlete's Foot, Dr Perr says it is a contagious fungal infection, which often affects in-between the toes but can also occur all over the feet.

“Antifungal medications will help or topical corticosteroids which will help reduce the inflammation,” he says. 

“Unfortunately there is no real cure for eczema but symptoms and irritation can be managed with creams and ointments. 

“Having psoriasis on the feet can also be really itchy; it’s an autoimmune condition which can’t be cured but helped with creams and lotions. You can speak to your pharmacist or GP for recommendations."

Dr Perr says contact dermatitis – if your feet make contact with an irritant or allergen – is “normally short lived once the route of the allergen is identified and can be treated with oral or topical corticosteroids”.

Scabies are tiny mites which burrow into the skin, including the soles of the feet producing an itchy rash. It is generally treated with topical creams or oral medication. 

Because some of the causes of itchy feet are more serious, such as diabetes, “always speak to your GP”, Dr Perr says.

3. Itchy tongue

Cause: Allergen, oral thrush and smoking

An itchy tongue can be incredibly infuriating.

Allergies – due to inhaling pollen or eating types of raw fruits, vegetables and tree nuts – can be rid of by rinsing your mouth with water and in a worst-case scenario, taking an antihistamine.

Oral thrush is more common in babies and older adults with dentures. It more rarely occurs in healthy adults.

Dr Perr says: “To avoid having an itchy tongue, watch your diet and practise good oral hygiene, remembering to clean your tongue as well as your teeth.”

5. Itchy genitals

Causes: Irritants, bacterial and yeast infections, STIs, diabetes, psoriasis, menopause, cancer

Endless scratching down below isn’t a good look. But, there could be a very simple reason behind it.

Dr Perr says: “At some point most women will suffer with an itchy vagina which can be due to a number of reasons. Simple irritations from clothing, soap and shower gels are top of the list.” 

You may want to test a different soap, shower gel or even detergent, to see if the itching subsides.

It's important for women to keep the vulva clean, but they should be careful to not get soap inside the vagina, as this can make things worse.

Men should pull back the foreskin of their penis to keep it clean.

Both men and women can get thrush, which can be a repeated issue for those with diabetes.

Alongside itching and a white, thick discharge, women may experience pain when peeing or during sex, while men may have burning and redness on the head of the penis and difficulty pulling back the foreskin.

“A simple over the counter treatment will normally clear this up in 24 hours,” says Dr Perr.

“For other forms of yeast infections, it’s best to speak to your GP who may want to take a swab to determine the best course of treatment ranging from creams to antibiotics. Most STIs will also require antibiotics."

STIs that cause itching include chlamydia, genital herpes and genital warts.

Women may experience vaginal itching (as well as dryness or irritation) due to menopause. An oestrogen cream can help.

Dr Perr adds: “In more serious cases, cancer of the vulva can cause vaginal itching and is often accompanied by pain or soreness, an open sore or growth, a mole or a swelling on the vulva. 

“Always see your GP if you’re concerned, as they will run tests.”

6. Itchy bum

Cause: IBS, constipation, haemorrhoids, threadworms, diabetes, kidney failure and an overactive thyroid

“Anal itching is also really common and can be down to something simple such as not wiping properly,” says Dr Perr.

He adds that whilst medical care is not normally needed, you need to seek advice if the itching becomes constant and unbearable, you have bleeding or signs of an infection.

Haemorrhoids can cause blood in your stools and/or you may even feel small bumps around the edges of your anus. 

“Haemorrhoids can often be treated with a simple over the counter ointment, and in worse case scenarios a small medical procedure,” says Dr Perr.

Constipation can cause haemorrhoids, so if you’re struggling to ‘go’, don’t ignore the issue.

Dr Perr says: “A good diet packed full of fibre will help to ensure bowels are emptied properly, alongside drinking plenty of water and fluids.”

If you’re dealing with threadworms you may spot worms in your poo and feel itchy at night.

“Creams, ointments and tablets can be prescribed over the counter to treat threadworms,” says Dr Perr.

“In more serious cases, having an itchy bottom can be due to diabetes, kidney failure and an overactive thyroid.”

Book an appointment with your GP if you suspect it may be something more serious.

7. Itchy boobs

Causes: Bra, eczema, psoriasis, breast cancer 

Many of the causes of itchy boobs is “treatable with creams,” says Dr Perr.

But he adds: “However, on occasion, itching on the breasts can be a sign of breast cancer. 

“The itching will usually be accompanied by some redness, tenderness and a possible rash. 

“If itching is persistent and includes one of the above, seek advice from your GP immediately.”

8. Itchy face

Causes: Dry skin, skin conditions, ageing, insect bite

Dry skin could be caused by environmental factors, a change in weather, using water which is too hot, or a cleanser which is stripping the skin.

“A good moisturiser will normally do the trick,” says Dr Perr.

“Other causes of an itchy face can be eczema and psoriasis, both conditions which are extremely itchy and uncomfortable. 

“Your GP will be able to help alleviate symptoms with creams. 

“As we age, the skin gets thinner and retains less moisture which can also result in having dry, itchy skin. Again, switch up your moisturiser to one which is thicker in consistency during winter.”

Still itchy? “Other symptoms of an itchy face can be a bite. Antihistamines and over the counter pain relief will help to reduce swelling, irritation and possible infection,” explains Dr Perr.

9. Itchy nose

Cause: Allergy, a cold, sinusitis, tumour 

Most commonly, an itchy nose is due to an allergy such as pollen, pet hair and dust, which Dr Perr says is normally very easy to treat with either antihistamines or decongestant nasal sprays.

But Dr Perr adds: “Having an itchy nose can also be a sign you’re about to get a cold; the itch will often become a sneeze or several. 

“When germs that cause colds infect the nose and sinuses, we try to flush them out with mucus or a sneeze, and this causes itchiness.”

Another possible reason behind an itchy nose is sinusitis.

“This is when the nasal passages become inflamed and swollen and will often be accompanied by a blocked nose, tiredness and difficulty breathing through the nose,” says Dr Perr.  

“Unfortunately, it can last up to 12 weeks but is treatable.” 

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In rare cases, Dr Perr says that the worst-case scenario behind an itchy nose could be a nasal tumour which can be cancerous or noncancerous.

“It is rare and will often be accompanied by loss of smell, congestion, and sores. For a persistent itchy nose, make a visit to the GP.”

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