The Austin Chronicle

To Your Health

By James Heffley, Ph.D., January 16, 2004, Columns

Q. People laugh when I tell them how much a persistent itch on my back bothers me. Sometimes it even itches so much it hurts. Are there ways to control such a problem?

A. Itch, that distinctly unpleasant skin sensation that you want to relieve by scratching, is one of our body's built-in defense mechanisms. It alerts you that something harmful may be about to happen. As soon as we feel an itch, our first response is to scratch the spot in an effort to remove the potential irritant as soon as possible. Once you have scratched the area of irritation, you are likely to feel some relief. When your brain realizes that you've scratched away the irritant, the "itch" signal sent to your brain is interrupted and therefore no longer recognized by the brain. Even if you don't remove the irritant, scratching will at least cause pain and divert your attention away from the itching.

The same nerve fibers that send the "itch" signal are also used to send "pain" signals to the brain. Many scientists once believed that itching was a sort of subliminal or mild pain; however, research shows that pain and itch signals evoke opposite responses: Pain causes us to withdraw from the stimulus while itching causes us to want to scratch.

Although the nerve pathways are distinct from one another, there are complex interactions between pain and itch. The relief of an itch by pain is well known, which explains why we scratch an itch. However, the opposite effect also exists and has been used in the treatment of pain.

There are a great many causes of itching, ranging from the simple to the complex. Insect bites, rashes, hives, sunburn, lice, and such simple causes are often fairly obvious. More subtle causes include liver disease, fungal infection, food allergy, sensitivity to chemicals such as perfumes, and even anemia. Obviously, knowing the source of the irritation goes a long way toward remedying the situation.

If you are not sure of the cause of an itch, there are still some steps you can take to help deal with the itch:

Apply ice to the itchy area.

Avoid wearing rough clothing, particularly wool, over an itchy area.

Try an over-the-counter antihistamine, or try a vitamin C supplement that has some antihistamine effect.

Apply a soothing lotion (emu oil has been reported to help) after bathing to soften and cool the skin.

Drink plenty of water to keep skin supple and healthy.

Use omega-3-rich foods, such as cold-water fish, or supplement with borage oil capsules.

Take up an enjoyable hobby that distracts from the itching during the day and makes you tired enough to sleep at night.

Most itching does not require medical evaluation but does present a challenge for the sufferer. If you cannot find an obvious cause of itching, have a dermatologist check you out to be sure nothing serious is going on.

James Heffley, Ph.D., is a certified clinical nutritionist. The information he provides is for educational use only. If you believe you have a medical problem, see your physician.

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