Itching and rashes often occur together, but itchy skin alone can happen with dry skin, bug bites, some health conditions, or as a reaction to certain medications.
The causes of skin itching, or pruritis, are usually harmless. They are often temporary issues such as dry skin or a bug bite.
Less commonly, nerves, kidneys, thyroid, or liver issues can cause itching sensations without necessarily causing a rash.
Depending on the cause, a person may experience an itching sensation all over their body or in one specific area. The itching can vary from mild to extreme.
If a person is concerned about unexplained itching, extreme itching, or itching that lasts a long time, they should consult a doctor to determine the cause and get treatment advice.
- Dry skin
Dry skin, or xerosis, is a very common issue. The skin can start to feel itchy when it loses moisture.
Dry skin can present as flaky or scaly. It is common among older adults, especially during the colder months.
The following tips and home remedies can help relieve dry skin and prevent it from drying out further:
Avoid using soaps with harsh chemicals, as these can dry the skin out. Instead, try to use hypoallergenic and fragrance-free soaps and skin care products.
Use a humidifier at home to add moisture to the air, which helps prevent winter-related dry skin.
Apply moisturizer regularly, especially after getting out of the shower or bath. Vaseline or heavy creams such as Vanicream or Cerave are popular options.
Avoid taking showers that are longer than 10 minutes. Also, keep the water lukewarm rather than hot.
Do not bathe multiple times per day.
Avoid scratching dry skin, as this can damage the skin’s surface. If the skin breaks, a person is more likely to experience scarring and infection.
Learn more about home remedies for dry skin.
- Bug bites
Mosquito, spiders, and other insect bites can make the skin around the bite feel itchy and irritated.
Bug bites can leave behind a very small hole or pinprick-like area. However, they can be so small that a person may experience itching but not see the actual bites.
Many bugs can bite a person — including bed bugs, mosquitos, and lice — and the treatments can vary depending on the bug.
If a person experiences continued itching after a bug bite, they should contact a doctor.
Avoid scratching the area, as this can make the itching worse. A person should not use over-the-counter topical antibiotics such as Neosporin, as some people can develop an allergic reaction on their skin.
A person can also try the following remedies:
applying a cold compress to the affected area
taking oral pain relief
using a steroid cream or anesthetic cream may soothe the discomfort
Find out more about home remedies for mosquito bites.
- A side effect of certain medications
Itchy skin is a common side effect of many medications, which can occur with or without a rash. However, not every person will experience this when taking these medications.
Prescription pain relievers, which fall under the category of opioids, may cause itchy skin, such as:
Some medications that lower blood pressure may also cause similar skin issues.
If someone suspects that a medication is causing itching skin, they should speak with a doctor before stopping the drug. The doctor can advise about the best course of action and alternative medications if needed.
Sometimes, a doctor may halt the current medication to determine whether that is causing the itching.
At other times, they may recommend taking diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or hydroxyzine to reduce itching symptoms.
Find out the link between opioids and itching.
- Nerve disorders
Nerves relay messages from the skin to the brain. Problems with the nerves can cause itchiness or pain on the skin without causing any actual damage to it, referred to as neuropathic itch.
Injuries that affect the nerves or cause nerve damage can also make the skin feel itchy. The itchy area will depend on the location of the injury. For example, a pinched nerve occurs when the area of a nerve has had pressure on it, causing it to send warning signals to the brain. A damaged nerve usually causes pinched nerves, and symptoms can include pain, numbness, weakness, and itchiness.
Several nerve-related conditions can cause itching or other sensations on the skin without causing a rash. These conditions include:
postherpetic neuralgia, a complication of shingles
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, diabetes can cause many skin issues. For example, itching can result from diabetic neuropathy, a complication of diabetes that causes nerve damage. Learn about itching and diabetes here.
Treatments for nerve-related itching depend on the underlying cause. If a person suspects that they have a nerve disorder, they can consult a doctor to learn about what might be causing specific symptoms.
Find out how to treat a pinched nerve at home.
- Kidney disease
Kidney disease, especially in the advanced stages, can cause itching without a rash. The cause of itching in kidney disease is unknown, but scientists believe many factors are involved.
If a person knows they have kidney problems and start to develop itching skin, they should contact a doctor. Their doctor will run tests to see how well the kidneys are working.
Sometimes, a person may need dialysis, a medical procedure wherein a doctor uses a machine to act in the place of the kidneys to filter the blood.
Dermatologists can prescribe one of several medications to help people with itching skin from kidney disease.
- Liver disease
Liver diseases such as cirrhosis and hepatitis can cause skin itching. It is unclear why, but some attribute this sensation to the buildup of excessive bile in the body.
The itching tends to be more noticeable in the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Exposure to heat usually worsens the itching, and people usually notice that it is worse at night.
Learn more about the other symptoms of liver disease.
Treatment options usually depend on the type of liver disease a person has. Some doctors may prescribe colesevelam (Welchol), which results in less itching.
Read more about liver disease and itching.
- Skin cancer
Skin cancers do not always cause significant symptoms. However, some people may notice skin itching as an early symptom of a previous or new skin lesion. Other symptoms may include the development of a new or changing lesion on the skin.
People should check their skin regularly and report any unusual moles or skin changes to their doctor.
Learn about the symptoms of skin cancer here.
If a doctor is unsure about what is causing the skin change, they may take a small skin sample and send it to the laboratory for testing, which is known as a skin biopsy.
The best treatment option for skin cancer depends on its type, location, and stage.
Read more about cancer and itching.
- Hodgkin lymphoma
Itching without a rash can also occur in those with Hodgkin lymphoma or cancer of the blood cells.
Other symptoms of Hodgkin lymphoma include:
swelling of the lymph nodes, such as those in the neck, groin, or armpits
unexplained weight loss
Treatment options for Hodgkin lymphoma include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and bone marrow or stem cell transplants.
Find out what a lymphoma rash looks like.
When diagnosing potential causes of itching skin without rash, a doctor will likely consider the most common causes first. This includes excessively dry skin or as a side effect of new medications.
A doctor will consider any other symptoms a person has to guide other diagnostic methods. Examples include blood testing for liver, kidney, thyroid, or blood cell line issues.
Most causes of itching without a rash are treatable.
If a person uses a moisturizer, sets up a humidifier, and practices good skin care but still has itchy skin, they should talk with a doctor about the potential underlying causes.
Although there are some serious causes of itching without rash, they are relatively rare. A doctor can help a person determine the most likely cause and identify the best treatments.