What and Why?

Everyone feels the urge to scratch or rub their skin sometimes. Though rather disreputable, it is one of the basic and most familiar sensations, and plays some part in many normal functions and disease conditions. But this has not made it any easier for physiologists to discover how itching works. 

There are no separate itching nerves in your skin, as there are for pain and temperature. The sensation seems to start with the release of histamine from storage in special cells in your skin or in fine nerve endings; zinc is involved in the store-keeping. Messages then travel to your central nervous system along the nerves normally reserved for pain, and can only be felt as itching once they have reached your brain. 

Either the nerve messages are very subtly coded, or some subtler interpretation is necessary to make sense of them. Either way, the right amount of scratching sometimes abolishes the sensation — but just as often converts it to pain, or soreness which is a mixture of the two. To confuse the situation further, scratching will sometimes start the itching off! 

Its more useful variations occur when a large insect is crawling on you, when a boil is ripe, in dandruff, when ear wax loosens and under a spent scab in the final stages of wound healing. To scratch in these cases makes reasonable sense, though it may be counterproductive. Insect bites do not cause itching fast enough to help you prevent them, and the scabs of chicken pox itch long before they can safely be scratched off. 

In most other conditions the itching is useless or out of control. Allergy, eczema and intolerance are getting much commoner, and frequently have to do with food additives or common staple foods. Lice and scabies are worth watching for, as capable of the most intense and frantic itching. Vaginal thrush can itch so much as to become a medical emergency. Diabetes and jaundice (build-up of a waste chemical from spent blood cells) are more generalized diseases that sometimes reveal themselves this way. 

Antihistamine drugs often give good relief but do not solve the problem. If your doctor finds no serious cause that needs his attention you can safely pursue a cure for it for yourself. 

What can I do?

Advice to maintain and maximise health

1. Make sure your skin is getting looked after. If dandruff is part of your problem, deal with that. Otherwise air your skin thoroughly for five minutes every day, during your getting-up or bathing routine. Before you dress brush it all over firmly with a loofa or fine bristle brush, stiff enough to make it blush but not to scratch it. Never use soap when you wash or bathe, and after any hot bathing rinse the part thoroughly with cold water for 15-30 seconds before rubbing dry vigorously. An all-over massage with oil for ten minutes once or twice a week is another pleasant aid to skin health.

2. Move towards a healthy diet, first cutting out sugar, refined flour and the food additives that can provoke allergy.

3. Dry skin, with nails coarsely ridged or speckled with white, needs more zinc; so do many women taking the oral contraceptive pill.

  • Take 15mg zinc daily with Vitamin C (500mg or more) and Vitamin B6 (50mg daily) to enable you to use it effectively. In time this increases the security of your histamine stores so that itching is less easily triggered off.

4. If itching is due to eczema or urticaria — great weals of raised red skin which come and go all over your body in a matter of hours — or is localized in your nose or eyes, look for allergy or intolerance, usually to something eaten as or with your food.

5. Sick skin that itches chronically may be inflaming against some irritant being excreted through it. As well as following the bathing routine already suggested, try a Priessnitz pack. After a hot bath wrap a cold damp sheet (spun dry) tightly once round your body from your armpits to your hips, pinning it at frequent intervals to make it hug you. Put on a warm woollen sweater over this or go to bed in cotton nightwear. You should glow comfortably within a minute of putting this on; if water oozes from the sheet as you tighten it, take it off and wring it out or spin it drier. If after two hours (or overnight) the sheet is stained, repeat the pack three times a week until the staining fades. A diet and supplements for cleansing will speed up your progress.

6. Wear natural fibres next to your skin, light and loose enough to be cool and airy. Adjust your clothing to conditions so as never to sweat into it; if you do, shower and change at the first opportunity afterwards.

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