Break the scratching habit. You know you are doing it but cannot stop. This is quite a common problem. We all know that scratching can relieve itching temporarily. Scientists have now discovered that it stops the nerves in the spinal cord transmitting signals from that area of skin to the brain. Although it relieves itching initially, scratching eventually makes the itching worse, so you scratch more and then itch more. The scratch–itch cycle is hard to get out of, especially if you are feeling stressed, anxious or depressed. Doctors at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, London, have developed a programme to break the habit of scratching (Dermatology in Practice 2002;10:28–30). You could try their method at home.

  • The first stage is simply to become aware of how much you are scratching. Obtain a counter (from sports shops) and click it each time you scratch. You will probably be surprised at the high count. Also, note the circumstances in which you are likely to scratch.
  • The second stage is to replace the action of scratching by another ‘safe’ action. For example, you could clench your fists to a count of 30, then if the itch remains (often it will have gone), pinch the skin gently. Continue to log your scratching using the counter.
  • As your scratching decreases, concentrate your efforts on the times you scratch most (usually first thing in the morning, getting home after school or work, and last thing at night).

If you feel you have to scratch, try scratching a few centimetres away from the itchy area. This may relieve the itch, with less risk of damaging the skin by constantly scratching the same place (British Journal of Dermatology 2007;156:629–634).

Use a moisturizer (emollient)

  • If the urge to scratch is overwhelming, try smoothing on some moisturizing (also called ‘emollient’) skin cream; this will be less damaging to your skin. A pharmacist will be able to recommend something suitable. For some people, emollient cream (such as aqueous cream; do not use aqueous cream with sodium laurel sulphate (SLS) in it) can itself be irritating if left on the skin (but all right for washing); if this happens, change to an ointment (Dermatology in Practice 2004;12:16–20).
  • Take advice from readers of the Dr Le Fanu column in the Daily Telegraph. To relieve itching, they recommend gently rubbing the itchy area with the inside of a banana skin.

Keep cool

  • Itching is usually worse when people are warm. Also, dry air will dry out your skin and worsen itching. So try to keep cool, do not overdress and turn your heating down, especially for sleep.
  • Use antihistamines regularly as this will often help with the itch.
  • Keep your nails short.
  • Use cool damp flannels to help relieve the itch.

Your clothes

  • Avoid wool or rough synthetic fabrics against your skin. Cotton is less irritating.
  • Check the detergent you use for washing your clothes. Avoid those labelled ‘biological’ or ‘enzyme’. Instead, choose one labelled ‘for sensitive skin’. Choose an unperfumed fabric softener or one labelled ‘for sensitive skin’.

When you wash

  • You do not have to bathe every day to be clean. Bathing strips natural, protective grease from your skin. If you think your skin is dry, bath or shower only twice a week – you can easily wash the smelly parts of your body separately. Use warm, not hot, water.
  • Avoid perfumed or drying soap. Choose an unperfumed ‘cream bar’ type or use aqueous cream (from pharmacies) instead of soap.
  • Do not put any disinfectant in the bath or, worse, directly onto your skin. This can start a dermatitis reaction and make the problem even worse. An unperfumed ‘dermatological’ bath oil is a good idea, because it will help to prevent dry skin. You can buy suitable oils from pharmacies – ask the pharmacist for advice. But remember that bath oils can make the bath or shower very slippery!
  • Do not scrub your skin.
  • Take warm, not hot, baths or showers.
  • Moisturize your skin after bathing, when the skin is still slightly damp, as this seals in the moisture. So, after washing, towel-dry your skin gently, then apply a moisturizing cream.

If your pet is itching

  • Treat the pet for fleas. If this does not work, take your animal to a vet. Human itching from dog scabies goes away when the animal is treated.


First published on:
Reviewed and edited by: Fiona Elliott
Last updated: December 2020

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