Guide to the Causes of Body Itch


" The causes of body itch (referred to as pruritis) are difficult to identify since the symptoms are often non-specific to any particular trigger. However, where the itch is located, how it looks and the timing of when it showed up, may indicate probable causes. Localized skin inflammation, meaning itching in specific or limited areas of the body, are often insect-based or caused by problems such as shingles, plants (poison ivy), or medication. Generalized itching, itching that occurs all over the body, is usually caused by an allergy, hives, medication or even mites (scabies). Signs of harmless itching usually occur on the arms, groin or feet."If the itch persists for several days with no relief, if the itch comes and goes for several days at a time, or if it is accompanied by other symptoms such as lesions or rash, be sure to see a Dermatologist for testing. In cases where the Doctor believes a disease is the underlying cause then testing will be conducted to check blood sugar (for signs of diabetes), thyroid function, kidney function and liver function."  

Skin symptoms such as itch can either indicate a minor harmless problem or one that reflects a problem going on inside the body such as diabetes, liver disease, heart disease or cancer.  The key is to diagnosis is to note when the itch began and any other symptoms such as rash or possible bite marks.  Take note of anything that may have come in contact with your skin.

The itch itself is caused by a skin sensation transmitted to the surface by what are called C-fiber nerves. These nerves are triggered by:

  •  the immune system via a release of histamine which responds to foreign substances such as those left behind by an insect bite
  • irritants that enter through cracks in the surface of the skin
Scratching the itch sometimes masks it by replacing one skin sensation with the heat generated by scratching since the skin can only experience one sensation at a time. Itch feels good to the person being itched because the nerves that cause the itch form a channel leading directly to the brain, possibly releasing pleasure causing endorphins.

General itch across the entire body is usually caused by an allergy.  This could be to food, a medicine that you took such as an antibiotic (common cause), an allergic reaction to an insect bite, or an allergen that touched your skin.

A skin itch often comes before other symptoms such as skin rash.  For example the disease shingles (adult version of chicken pox virus) starts with an itch and skin tingling followed by a rash.

Itching accompanied by other symptoms such as rash could indicate the cause.  For example skin itch combined with joint pain and a localized rash could indicate Lyme disease.

Body itch and skin reactions such as red bumps or papules can have many causes.    Insect based causes are often assumed to be the problem, when in fact, they are triggered by something in the environment or a food allergy.  Itch diagnosis is further complicated by delays between the trigger and the skin itch which can range from an immediate reaction to one that occurs days later.

The location of the problem, appearance of the skin and any associated symptoms, could provide clues as to the cause as shown below:

Location and Symptom: Possible Causes of Body Itch
Generalized skin itch (all over body) Food Allergy -  treated by avoiding trigger food.
Environmental Allergy
Environmental Problem
Dry Air
Chemical (cleaners, detergents)
Old Age (usually over age 70 due to skin moisture loss)
Idiopathic (unknown cause)
Chronic Insect bite allergy
Kidney Disease (caused by toxins that are not removed from the body by malfunctioning kidneys)
Dry skin - cracks allow irritants to enter causing itch. Treatment involves the use of a thick moisturizer to trap moisture into the skin.
Generalized body itching and skin has a yellow color.  Eyes may also have a yellow color. Jaundice due to liver disease, or pancreatic cancer. Caused when bile ducts are obstructed.
Generalized skin itching with enlarged lymph glands above collar, enlarged armpit, groin and elbow lymph glands,  Leukemia  (white blood cell problem) or Polycythemia (white blood cell problem)
Generalized dry skin itch (when under 70 years old) with symptoms such as constipation, feeling tired, feeling cold when others are warm One of the common causes of body itch in people is low thyroid function.
Generalized dry skin itch (over 70 years old) Dry skin due to low skin moisture causes body itching.
Generalized Skin itch after swimming in a lake, pond, stream or river. Swimmers itch caused by a flatworm protein. The worms use birds and snails as a natural host, but will come into contact with humans as they seek a new host. They cannot survive on people, but will cause a skin reaction in those that are sensitive to the flatworm protein. The condition will go away on its own.  Itch can be helped with a natural topical such as Itch Dr.
Skin itch under bathing suit or other skin areas after swimming in a pool, going to a water park or spending time in a  hot tub An improperly disinfected pool or hot tub can be contaminated with a germ that causes a condition called hot tub rash (also called folliculitis or dermatitis).  The rash will heal in several days on its own.  Relief can come from products formulated for itch relief such as the product mentioned above.
Vagina Itch (feminine itch) Diabetic women can get vagina itch due to high levels of sugar in the urine. If this is the case the blood sugar will need to be controlled.

Other causes of feminine itch include a yeast infection (most common) , itch due to irritating chemicals such as a detergent, sprays or soaps, and  STDs (sexually transmitted disease - chlamydia).  If itch persists for longer than 7 days, see a Doctor.
Rectal Itching, Anal Itching Anal itch or ass itch is a common problem.  This is caused by hemorrhoids or other skin issue such as inflammation from excessive wiping, removing skin oils.  Inflammation can be reduced with the prescription medication Proctofoam HC.

Hemorrhoids are often accompanied by symptoms such as feeling a lump when wiping or blood.  Treatment  for hemorrhoids includes topical ointments suppositories, creams or removal.
Localized (in specific area (s) of the body Insect bite allergy - everyone reacts to insect bites differently, from no reaction to a reactions that are on specific parts of the body.  

Allergy Contact Dermatitis - skin reaction or hypersensitivity that occurs 2 or more days after coming in contact with the trigger. Often caused by rubber, nickel and the antibacterial neomycin. Also caused by allergens in cosmetics, dyes and soap.

Irritant Contact Dermatitis - this is caused by an immediate skin reaction to a chemicals.

Plants - certain plants that come into contact with the skin can cause a rash and itch such as poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac.  Symptoms include skin bumps and itch.
Skin Folds (waist itch, ankles itch, knee itch) Chiggers - attach to clothing and bite  where clothing is pulled close to the body
Neck Itch, bottom of legs, lower arm/hands itch Bed Bugs - bite exposed skin areas during sleep. Bed bug bites can be individual or in patterns.  Bites have a clear center.
Ankle Itch  Fleas
Scalp Itch, Lice (causes all conditions).

Common causes of scalp itch  include frequent washing in hot water, dandruff, seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, dry skin.  A yeast killing shampoo such as Nizoral A-D can help eliminate dandruff and the scalp itch.
Pubic or Jock Itch, Scrotum itch Jock itch is caused by the same fungus as Athlete's Foot (see below).  it is treated with the anti-fungal Lotrimin Ultra.  

The most common causes of scrotum itch include yeast infection (bright red rash on scrotum and possibly penis tip), allergy, psoriasis, eczema or pubic lice.  Jock itch can cause scrotum itch, but it is less common.
Shoulder Blade Itch, Bend of Knee itch, Elbow itch, Itch between each finger Mites, Scabies cause skin reactions due to mites burrowing under the skin.
Random areas with small skin reactions Mosquito bites often result in groups or individual small red bite marks.
Feet Athletes Foot (fungus Trichophyton). Treated with the product Lotrimin. If athletes foot returns after treatment, treat toenails with regular Listerine or Fungoid Tincture.

Insect Based Causes of Body Itch

Insects based causes of body itch are often mistaken for non-insect based triggers. This is why exterminators and dermatologists always ask if you have captured an insect that they can review.

An insect bite that causes itch or some type of skin reaction is actually an allergic reaction.  Two people that were bitten can react in completely different ways.  This is often the case with bed bugs, where two people sleeping in the same bed can have different reactions.  Insect bites usually go away on their own or with a simple topical itch treatment. If insects are in the home, they of course will need to be removed by an exterminator such as Service Magic (1.877.233.1145)

Chiggers Rash

Chiggers jump onto clothing when outdoors. They are a type of mite who bite at the waist, ankles or where skin folds. The result is severe itching. Bite is in the form of red pimple-like bumps or hives. You may be bitten by a chigger after a walk in the berry patch, weeds, tall grass or woodland areas. A chiggers rash may be present as well.

If you suspect chigger bites and one of the causes of body itch wash all clothes and bedding and clean your carpets and furniture.

Fleas on Humans

Fleas on humans cause itching and small red bumps at the ankles. It is often caused by fleas and dogs and cats, who then bring them into the house.

Getting rid of fleas in the house involves washing  all linen, thoroughly vacuuming all rugs and furniture and the use a home disinfectant. If you have pets, ask the vet for a flea treatment or use an over the counter dip such as Dermisil for pet fleas.  After using the, use a pet flea preventative such as Frontline for Dogs or Frontline for Cats.

flea bites
Flea Bites on Lower Legs is one of the common causes of body itch, particularly in households with pets

Head Lice Symptoms

Humans may play host to three kinds of lice: head, pubic and body lice. Body lice thrive on human blood. They live in the folds and seams of clothes. You may catch lice by coming into contact with an infected person, their clothing, bedding or towels. You will experience intense itching, red, bumpy skin and locations at the waist or groin and you may show skin signs of the skin being discolored or becoming thicker if the lice have been there a long time.

Lice treatment involves washing clothes in hot water followed by drying the clothes in hot dryer. Usually good hygiene is enough to combat lice.

Scabies Skin Itching Symptoms

Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis, also referred to as the Human itch mite or Scabies itch mite.  It’s a very small and nasty, eight-legged round bodied bug, just barely visible to the eye. These creatures burrow under the skin and create tunnels to lay eggs. They leave zigzag blisters under the skin and a red rash and are one of the causes of body itch a doctor will explore when the skin as raised areas as shown below.

Scabies treatment involves washing everything you have touched, in particular sheets, towels and clothing. Use the hottest water possible. Dry on HIGH heat. for other items, like coats or toys, put them in a bag and store them for a week or longer. In terms of scabies skin treatment, there are effective over the counter products such as  Dermisil for Scabies.  The same company makes a product that can address scabies skin itch.

causes of body itch
Causes of Body Itch include the Scabies Mite, which burrows under the skin.  Treatment involves the use of an over the counter topical .
Source: Dermisil

Bed Bugs Skin Itching

Bed bugs are small, oval, non-flying insects with three species that cause what are known as bed bug bites (actually a skin puncture). They have flat bodies and may be mistaken for ticks or cockroaches.  Given all the recent publicity around this problem, many people falsely believe that this is one of the possible causes of body itch, when the insect they found just looks like  a bed bug such as a small beetle or cockroach.

Bed bugs feed by puncturing the skin and then sucking out blood at favorite sites such as the arms, hands, neck and face (areas exposed during sleep). They do not bite the bottoms of the feet, if this is the case suspect scabies as the cause of body itch. Bed bug bites tend to be small, raised or flat bumps characterized by itching, swelling and redness. They often bite in a row of three dots along the seam of a mattress, a typical hiding spot, but individual bites are possible.  Most people show no skin reaction, however those that do have an allergic reaction that can range from minor skin irritation and itch to more chronic cases where the bed bug bites cause skin blisters.

In terms of bed bugs skin itching, symptoms should stop in 3 to 5 days after the first sign of symptoms. To help with itch, try an oatmeal based anti-itch topical such as Aveeno or you can buy a specific bed bug itch remedy.

 Most bed bug infestations require pest-control intervention with sprays, dusts, and aerosol insecticides. The best approach is to purchase the combination of products needed in a bed bug kit.  You can buy either an organic bed bug kit or insecticide based bed bug kit.   This guide to getting rid of bed bugs can be helpful.

 This includes You may have to discard your mattress and bed, as deep cleaning may not help. You may also need to fill cracks in your moldings, walls and floors or use a super powered vacuum on them.

causes of body itch
Causes of Body Itch include the rapidly growing bed bug problem. If you suspect this cause of itchy skin, check the mattress for brown fecal marks and blood stains.
Source: Bed Bugs Pictures 

Ticks as a Cause of Itchy Skin

Ticks have been around for at least 90 million years and there are over 800 species, but only two transmit diseases to humans - hard ticks and soft ticks. Hard ticks have a shell on their back. Soft ticks don’t. These are acquired by a walking outside or from a pet.  In some parts of the United States this is one of the common causes of body itch.

Ticks grab or crawl onto a host and latch on to suck blood. The bacteria they carry with them is transmitted to the host when the tick is finished eating. Tick Bites are painless and the bite site is usually itchy, burns, swollen and red. Some people experience severe pain. Those with allergies may have severe reactions to tick saliva.

 Remove the tick once you locate it by gently tweezing it out of your skin. Do not burn it or yank it out, or you may leave the head behind. Treat the bite with Benadryl compounds.  Be on the lookout for more ticks and do a body inspection if you have been outside. Inspect your pets on a regular basis during tick season.

Some Environmental Causes of Body Itch

Elements in the environment are causes of body itch when they come in contact with the skin. These causes of itching skin include:

  • Sunburn Harsh chemicals
  • Molds 
  • Toxic plants (poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac)
  •  Stinging plants
  •  Laundry detergents
  •  Perfumed creams and lotions 
  • Chemical household cleaners

poison plants picture
Source: Information on plant based causes of body itch: Dermisil Poison Ivy

Plants such as poison ivy, oak and sumac contain Urushiol which can cause an allergic itchy skin rash. IF you believe that you were exposed, wash the skin with an anti-bacterial soap.  Look for a natural poison ivy, oak and sumac remedy for itch that contains alpha-terpinene-4-ol  and cineol such as Dermisil for Poison Ivy .

Some Chemical Causes of Body Itch

Chemicals can be one of the causes of body itch.  They can cause skin burns and other skin reactions when ingested.  Types of chemical include:

  • Inhaled, ingested or handled toxic chemicals
  •  Ingestion of chemicals such as MSG Ingestion
  • Inhalation or injection of various drugs

Some Age Based Causes of Body Itch - Dry Skin

Age is one of the simple causes of body itch. As the skin ages it loses moisture which adds it to the list of causes of body itch.  The commonly occurs in individuals over age 70.  Locations of the body where dry skin itch often occurs are the arms, bottoms of the legs, and sides of the torso and thigh area.

Treatment involves the use of thick moisturizing creams, reducing the length of time spent in the bath, and a switch to a gentler soap such as Cetaphil.  Itch can be helped with a topical such as the Aveeno hydrocortisone product mentioned below. Another good choice is Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion with Oatmeal.  The later also works well in people that have skin allergies.  Apply in 3 minutes after stepping out of the shower to lock the most moisture into the skin.

To reduce the chance of dry skin, try showering in warm, not hot water. To help moisturize the skin with humidity, step away from the water at the end of your shower, and run on the hottest temperature to steam the room.

Disease Based Causes of Body Itch

Some disease based causes of body itch includes:

  • Chickenpox
  • Fifth disease or erythema infectiosum
  • Shingles
  • Smallpox
  • Roseola 
  • Viral exanthema 
  • Measles 
  • Herpes

Symptoms of Body Itching

If your symptoms involve your whole body, they are referred to as generalized itching. You will experience a crawling kind of sensation just under the skin that sets up the urge to scratch in order to get it to stop. You may have some swelling along with the body itch, such as a rash, scales, fungus involvement, a viral vector or parasitic involvement. Each itch antagonist will produce its own symptoms, but typically speaking, you will itch all over and not be able to get real relief.

For localized causes of body itch, or itching in just one of two locations on your body, you will experience the same or similar symptoms involved in generalized itching. There may also be some pain, weeping, redness, scaling, blistering or shingling, depending on the causes of body itch. In either case, see your doctor if you are experiencing any of the above signs or symptoms to get to the bottom of why you are experiencing itching skin.

Diagnosis of Body Itching

Diagnosis of the causes of body itch often begins with a visual examination, followed by a physical exam and an in depth set of questions to help the physician understand a possible reason for the itchy skin.   A Doctor may ask about possible causes of bod itch such as:

  • when the problem began
  • when your skin itches
  • location of itchy skin
  • your thoughts on possible causes
  • allergy history
  • recent medications taken such as antibiotics
  • exposure to pets
  • use of soaps
  • new, detergents
  • dietary changes (particularly shellfish, shrimp and nuts)
  • insect exposure (mosquitoes, chiggers, bed bugs, lice)
  • use of cosmetics and lotions
  • sun exposure
  • start of symptoms such as rash

If there does not appear to be an infection or skin lesion of some sort, then a doctor will explore less common causes of body itch. Diagnosis can involve a skin biopsy, blood tests or x-rays. Generally speaking, you would go to the doctor if there seems to be no reasonable explanation for the itching; if it is severe and doesn’t stop; if it does not go away despite what you do and if it happens in conjunction with other, strange symptoms.

Otherwise, you may be able to figure out the possible causes of body itch on your own by eliminating possible triggers.

Treatment of Body Itch

To address the causes of body itch a Doctor may recommend one or more of the following approaches:

  • Tranquilizers 
  • Oral Antihistamines can help to bring some relief.  One side effect in a few products is tiredness, so check package labels if using the product during the day (Kirkland AllerClear or other products such as Claritin that contain Loratadine are a good choice for a low cost non-drowsy anti-itch antihistamine.  An alternative are products with Ceterizine, which is the active ingredient in Zyrtec.)  Do not use Benadryl (diphenhydramine) as the active ingredient could cause an allergic reaction in some people.
  • Corticosteroids Itch creams and lotions can help to reduce skin inflammation and itching from problems such as poison ivy.  good for application to small or localized skin areas. (Make sure they contain camphor, menthol, phenol, pramoxine, diphenhydramine, and a “caine” derivative, which is an anesthetic) .  When applied to the face do not buy products that are more than 1% hydrocortisone (a good choice is Aveeno).  A doctor may prescribe an oral corticosteroid for more severer or widespread skin conditions.  Do not use on infants without the advice of a Doctor due to bloodstream absorption.
  • Hydrocortisone creams/lotions (These only help “if” the itch is responsive to cortisone. Additionally, many are too weak to make much difference.)
  • Ice packs - ice slows down the c-fibers, the pathway the body uses to signal an itch.
  • Cold showers.  Avoid using hot water and do not bathe for long periods of time. Use a small amount of soap and pat dry.  Some relief may be available with the use of a moisturizing lotion after bath that is additive free (additives may result in skin reactions). 
  • Facecloths (Interrupts the itch cycle) 
  • Hot water (Kills the itch temporarily, but it will return even worse. Not highly recommended)
  • Natural remedies such as Itch Dr. for general itching (contains ingredients such as  Vitamin E, aloe and tea tree oil), Anal Itch Assist and Hive Away can all help to relieve itching using gentle herbal and natural ingredients.
  •  Motrin IB ibuprofen - an anti-inflammatory 
  • Oatmeal based topicals such as Aveeno
  • Cortaid 10 (hydrocortisone 1%) – anti-inflammatory that handles itching and swelling/redness.  Takes longer to work than topical anesthetics.
  • Dermoplast Spray (benzocaine 20%, menthol .5%) – virtual instant relief for surface itching and pain. 
  • Mycitracin Ointment (polymyxin B 10,000 IU/g, bacitracin zinc 500 IU/g, neomycin sulfate 5 mg/g) – Good to prevent infection.
  • Ignore the itch - try distracting yourself with a video game.  There is some scientific basis for this approach.
  • Itch a location that doesn't each - try itching the opposite area of the body (e.g; if the itch is on the left arm, itch the right arm). This approach confuses the brain and may help reduce the desire to itch.

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References for Causes of Body Itch: 

Medline Plus (National Institutes of Health)


The Merck Manual of Medical Information

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