The Strange Way Itchy Skin Can Harm Your Mental Health

Chronic itch is more than skin deep, research says it can set your mental health back, too (not cool!). Here are some techniques to calm your skin and your mind.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

An itch that just won't go away could drive anyone up the wall—but according to new research, this symptom that may sound like a minor annoyance can significantly harm your mental health.

The study, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, found that dermatological patients—aka people seeking a specialist's help for skin problems—who have an itch as one of their symptoms are more likely to also experience clinical depression, suicidal ideation, and chronic stress. Yes, it's that serious.

The study looked at data from 3,530 people with skin diseases, like psoriasis and eczema, across 13 European countries, comparing their results with more than 1,000 healthy participants.

"There are already studies showing evidence of a correlation between itch and mental health problems in general, and in specific skin disorders, but there is a lack of a cross-sectional study across chronic skin diseases," said lead investigator Florence J. Dalgard, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of dermatology Lund University in Malmö, Sweden, per a news release.

An itch may accompany the following skin conditions, among others:

  • Psoriasis (a 70% itch prevalence, per the study)

  • Eczema (78% in eczema in general and 82% in hand-specific eczema)

  • Nodular prurigo, which causes hard, itchy lumps (90%)

  • Atopic dermatitis (86%)

  • Urticaria, or hives (76%)

When comparing the prevalence of mental health problems in those with an itch and those without, results showed 14% of patients with itch had depression versus 3% of healthy controls without itch; 15.7% of patients with itch had suicidal thoughts versus 8.6% of patients without itch. Researchers also found that in general, participants with itch were more likely to report stressful life events than those without itch, and itch was also associated with economic problems.

"Our research shows that itch has a high impact on quality of life," Dr. Dalgard said. "This study illustrates the burden of the symptom of itch and its multidimensional aspect. The management of patients with itch should involve access to a multidisciplinary team when necessary, as is already the case in several European countries."

How to Manage the Itch—and Your Mental Health

So, how do researchers suggest we address this problem? For one, they suggest those with itch get treatment from a multidisciplinary team—meaning a team of different types of health professionals working together, from a dermatologist to a therapist—to help deal with problems that come with the itch. For those diagnosed with a chronic inflammatory skin condition, getting aggressive treatment as quickly as possible may be beneficial in stopping the itch and any associated mental health problems in their tracks. Additionally, the study authors recommend an increase in prevention tactics for these issues, like education programs on diseases like psoriasis and more.

And if you’re battling itchy skin, make sure you know these tried-and-true tricks for some relief, per the American Academy of Dermatology:

  • Don't scratch. First rule of thumb: Don’t. Scratch. It can make your skin feel worse and up your risk of infection. Easier said than done, we know. When an urge to scratch comes along, immediately do something else—tap your nose, get up and dance…anything to distract you.

  • Cool down. Try applying an ice pack or a cold, wet cloth to your itchy skin for about 5-10 minutes, or until you feel better. Cooling agents like menthol or calamine may help, too.

  • Take a bath. Oatmeal baths can help soothe itchy skin, especially if your itch comes with blisters or oozing. If taking a regular bath or shower, use lukewarm water, not hot, which can worsen things. Make sure your bath products are fragrance-free.

  • Keep moisture in. Use a moisturizer regularly to help relieve itchy skin. Make sure your chosen moisturizer product doesn’t contain any fragrances, perfumes, or additives, which can be irritating. Storing your moisturizer in the fridge comes with an added cooling effect.

  • Use itch cream. Apply a topical anesthetic to the area that contains pramoxine—you should be able to find a variety of brands to choose from in your local drug store.

And remember, if you're struggling to find relief, seeking the help of a dermatologist is key. These are the experts in all things skin and can help you figure out the root of your skin troubles and help get your itch under control.

Feelings of depression? Don't hesitate to reach out for help. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a free and confidential hotline service that can help you find information on treatment and even refer you to local facilities for care. Call them anytime at 1-800-7722-HELP (4357).

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts, it's important to seek the care of a mental health professional right away. If you need immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, anytime, day or night. Remember: You are not alone.

  • Itchy Skin Tips From the American Academy of Dermatology: American Academy of Dermatology, (2019), "How to Relieve Itchy Skin," aad.org

  • News Release on Itch and Mental Health Study: ScienceDaily, (2019), "Increased depression, suicidal thoughts and stress are reported in patients with chronically itchy skin," sciencedaily.com

  • SAMHSA National Help Line: SAMHSA’s National Help Line. (2019). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. samhsa.gov

  • Study on Itch and Mental Health: Journal of Investigative Dermatology, (2019), "Itch and Mental Health in Dermatological Patients across Europe: A Cross-Sectional Study in 13 Countries," jidonline.org

Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.