Dry skin, allergy, or irritation — there are many causes for those itchy skin spots. Find out what's behind that itch and explore your treatment options.
Itchy skin spots can be frustrating as well as annoying, especially when the urge to scratch is hard to resist. Your itchy skin spots can be a simple case of dry skin or part of a skin condition with noticeable signs, like the hives or rash from an allergic reaction. However, in some cases the reason for the itch could be more serious. Diseases as varied as kidney failure, hepatitis, and HIV can cause itching. A mole that starts to itch can be a warning sign of skin cancer.
The Leading Causes of Itchy Skin Spots
The cause of many itchy skin spots can be traced to one of these conditions:
Dry skin. Though you might think of rough, flaky patches as the biggest symptom of dry skin, dry skin can start by feeling itchy. Don’t expect to see a rash, but you can sense tightness as skin loses water.
Eczema. Itchy skin spots may be from eczema or dermatitis, the catch-all name for inflammation of the skin. There are a few types of eczemas or inflammatory skin conditions that cause itchy skin spots:
Atopic dermatitis. Because it starts before the age of 5 in 90 percent of people, you probably already know if your itchy skin spots are from atopic (allergic) dermatitis. Though it’s a lifelong condition, atopic dermatitis often eases as you get older. Keep in mind that itchy skin spots can occur almost anywhere from feet, ankles, and knees to elbows, hands, and wrists, to the upper chest, neck, face, and even the eyelids.
Irritant contact dermatitis. This is a reaction to a chemical, like a detergent in dish liquid or solvent. A skin reaction can happen immediately or progressively over time with lots of exposure to the particular irritant.
Nickel — found in jewelry, metal snaps and hooks on clothing, earrings, and even the needles used to pierce ears — can cause earlobe dermatitis.
Rubber, especially latex, can cause an allergic reaction can include itching, burning, hives, and more serious complications, depending on the severity of your allergy.
Dyes (like permanent hair dyes with paraphenylene-diamine) can cause itchy rashes, and chromates (used to dye shoe leather) can cause shoe dermatitis on feet. Chromates are also in some matches, and touching the unlit match can cause a reaction on your fingers.
Neomycin, found in topical antibiotic ointments, lotions, creams, eye drops, and ear drops, can cause redness or irritation.
Fragrances and preservatives in skin care and other health and beauty products can also be irritating.
Fungal infections. There are a variety of skin infections due to fungi that cause itching, along with other, more severe symptoms like redness and scaling. Athlete’s foot, jock itch, and ringworm are examples.
The Right Diagnosis, the Right Treatment
While many conditions that cause itchy skin spots are treated the same way — starting with avoiding the substance that caused the reaction — it’s important to see a dermatologist who can pinpoint which type of dermatitis you have and prescribe the most appropriate treatment.
Sometimes a diagnosis can be made by the location or pattern of the rash; in other cases, a patch test might be needed, especially if an allergy is suspected. A blood test and an analysis of skin cells are other testing options.
Whether you have itchy dry skin or another skin condition, tender care is often step one:
Avoid soaps and harsh cleansers as well as hot water that can strip skin of protective oils.
Apply a rich moisturizer while skin is still damp to create a protective barrier.
Choose comfortable, loose clothing in light fabrics and try to keep your indoor temperature on the cool side.
For many types of dermatitis, itchy skin spots will also need the calming action of a topical corticosteroid, or an immunomodulator medication which decreases the immune response causing the itching. Sometimes an oral antihistamine is needed to stop the histamine-itch reaction. Itchy skin spots that turn out to be a blistering poison ivy, for example, may be soothed with old-fashioned home remedies like an oatmeal bath and calamine lotion. Some people with atopic dermatitis may also have another allergic condition, like asthma or hay fever, as well as food allergies; managing these with the help of an allergist as well as your dermatologist may improve your symptoms. And itching due to a fungal infection must be treated with antifungal medications.
Avoiding Itchy Skin Triggers
The key to relief is to stay away from the objects or ingredients that cause the itch. The problem is that being vigilant can be time-consuming, and it’s easy to become lax. However, reading the ingredient lists on beauty products as well as the fiber content on clothes, for instance, will steer you away from the moisturizer with a bothersome fragrance or the sweater that has 5 percent wool, if those are your triggers. After allergy skin testing, your dermatologist should be able to give you a list of your trigger irritants or allergens and possible substitutes. Once you know what troubles your skin, you’ll know how to avoid getting those itchy skin spots.