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The One Itch You Should Never Ignore

Bet you’re trying to guess the answer, aren’t you?​

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Agnes Lee
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Do me a favor and study the headline for this story. Now you’re trying to guess the answer, aren’t you? Is it the perpetual itch emanating from your inner-elbows, you wonder? Nah, too obvious. Wait, what about the itch way down there? Or up on your head?

Now you’re ruminating on whether it’s OK that your scalp tingles practically every time you sit down at your desk. Now you’re worried that you must cope with some obscure brain disease on top of the coronavirus and quarantines and a tumultuous stock market and … everything else going on right now. Now you’re scratching your scalp.

Aaaaaaand that’s why itchiness is a common and altogether time-sucking nuisance. “Itching is caused by the irritation of the nerve endings, so think about how many times our nerves are revved up,” says Adriana Schmidt, M.D., a California-based, board-certified dermatologist and spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation. “Anxiety and stress can cause you to itch — and it can make a preexisting skin condition like acne or eczema or psoriasis even worse. … Because of that psychological component, it can really interfere with your peace of mind.”

(Speaking of which: She adds that many people do scratch the back of their scalps out of stress.)

But a certain brand of itch may be cause for medical concern. Don’t fixate on the body part, though. Instead, take a close look at the skin itself — specifically, an itchy lesion, freckle, mole or any sort of growth.

“By no means is it always an indicator that something bad is going on,” she cautions. “But it can be a sign of skin cancer, and skin cancer is all around us.” Indeed, it’s the most common cancer diagnosis in the country, per the American Academy of Dermatology, with 9,500 new diagnoses every day. And nonmelanoma skin cancer — including basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas — affects 3 million Americans a year.

Call it one of the lesser-known skin cancer warning signs, along with those mnemonic ABCDE rules we learned about by way of our favorite women’s magazines. (Recap: Watch for asymmetry, border, color, diameter and elevation to detect whether a mole is atypical and may turn into the more-serious melanoma.)

Itchiness itself is a tricky symptom because multiple causes also must be considered and ruled out. “When we have a patient come in with that itch, the first thing we ask about is their regimen,” Schmidt says. “Everything from age to moisturizer can irritate skin. And it could just be the nerves.”

Culprits include a new laundry detergent or fabric softener, a body lotion with fragrances, a new perfume, sunless tanner or body spray, or the use of home-cleaning products with harsh chemicals. Estrogen changes also can lead to increased dry, itchy skin. All the above can be treated with oatmeal baths, steroid cream, an antihistamine or moisturizing with a fragrance-free cream.

“The worst thing you can do is slather on a thick lotion with lavender and all those essential oils as a cure-all,” she says. (She recommends CeraVe moisturizers.)

If you’re itching to know if your problem may be more serious, take note of two additional factors: an itch around a spot that lasts a month, and whether the spot is accompanied by one of the ABCDE signs — or is prone to bleeding.

“That’s something you’d definitely want to get checked out,” she says, adding that a doctor will usually want to take bloodwork and investigate. Even then, “it could still be anything.”

Of course, always consult your own doctor for information and a diagnosis.

But while an itch can be a bitch, looking at it from a different perspective may ease your pain. As Schmidt notes, “What an itch really does is bring your attention to something on your skin that’s growing or changing. It actually helps people tune in to their skin.” Just try not to scratch!