Why We Itch and Why We Relax When We Itch

close up of a person scratching the dry and flaky skin of his back in black and white

Why Itching Makes Us Want to Itching More – Why We Itch


Table of Contents
How does itching occur?
Why does it feel good to itch an itch?
Why is it so hard to resist itching?
Are there medicines to relieve chronic itching?
Here are some things you can do to prevent itching.

Itching (scientifically known as “pruritus”) is a sensation caused by irritation of skin cells or skin-associated nerve cells, often experienced as a mild burning sensation, which can be electrical and periodic. – Why We Itch

Although it can be uncomfortable when itching is not relieved because it is experienced as a kind of “pain”, itching serves as an important sensory and self-protection mechanism, just like other skin sensations such as touch, pain, vibration, cold and heat.

It can alert us to harmful external factors.

Nevertheless, due to the same nature of being a “source of pain”, Itching the itchy area reduces this “pain” and gives a feeling of relief. Itching itchy places, therefore, have a relaxing and happy effect.

However, severe and uncontrolled itching can become unbearable if left untreated. Itching is a predominant symptom of many skin diseases and also occurs in some diseases that affect the whole body.

How does itching occur?

Itching is produced as a result of a complex relationship between the cells in our skin and the nervous system. Many cell types and proteins are involved in the sensation of itching.

In most cases, itching is caused by dry skin, which causes micro-cracks in the skin, leading to local inflammation.

The cells, therefore, release molecules such as histamine and quinine, which stimulate neurons called prurireceptors, C-fibers that are specialized to detect itching, and the brain recognizes this as “itching” and triggers the itching response.

In general, stimulation of these receptors by mechanical, thermal or chemical agents can trigger the sensation of “itching”.

We can categorize the stimuli that trigger prurireseptors under 4 headings.

1. Immune response chemicals (histamines) and painkiller (opioid) chemicals.

2. Neuropeptides containing pain-regulating messengers released in the brain, such as endorphins.

3. Neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine and serotonin.

4. Prostaglandins, lipids that, among other functions, create pain sensations in spinal nerve cells.

Their stimulation of the prurireceptors is often caused by inflammation, dryness or other damage to the skin, mucous membranes or conjunctival membranes in the eye (connecting the eye and eyelids).

The C-fibers that make up the purinoceptors are exactly the same as the nerves that create the sensation of pain.

Only their functional structure is different and their sole function is to transmit the sensation of itching. These neurons make up about 5% of the C-fibers lining the human skin.

When these neurons are stimulated at the skin surface, they transmit the signal to the spinal cord and from there to the brain, which in turn triggers the itching or rubbing response.

Local inflammation also causes redness, swelling and nerve stimulation in the surrounding tissue. This is why itchy areas are often red and swollen at the same time.

Why does it feel good to itch an itch?


Itching the itchy area triggers pain/pain and touch receptors in the same area, suppressing signals from specific purinoceptors. 

This makes the local and temporary itching disappear. For example, random itching caused by a hair or insect touching your body or by transient events under your skin can be relieved in this way.

However, if the problem causing the itching is ongoing (i.e. of a chronic nature), this Itching behaviour will not cause the itch to stop. 

In some cases (e.g. insect bites), Itching the itchy area can even trigger even more purinoceptors, spreading the itchy element further into the area and causing the itching sensation to spread over an even wider area. 

If you itch to relieve the itching experienced during the healing of open wounds, you may also open the wound further, slowing the healing process.

Why is it so hard to resist itching?


It is often very difficult to resist the sensation of itching because the scratching response is quite ancient and controlled by very old/deep areas of the brain, such as the thalamus. 

In fact, many itches are processed in the spinothalamic pathway on the spinal cord and the itch response is produced before they even reach the brain.

Therefore, it is very difficult to consciously resist this desire.

Are there medicines to relieve chronic itching?


Despite nearly a century of itch research, there is no single effective antipruritic treatment, but there are several topical and orally administered agents that suppress itching in specific clinical settings. 

These agents include lotions and creams (such as calamine and hydrocortisone), antihistamines, opioid antagonists, aspirin and ultraviolet light therapy.

Here are some things you can do to prevent itching.

Try not to itch. This may seem like a contradictory suggestion, but avoiding contact with itch-inducing elements and resisting the urge to itch as much as possible will reduce the amount of itching.

Moisturize your skin. Treating the skin barrier that is cracked for various reasons with therapeutic moisturizers will significantly reduce itching.

Use antipruritic medications. In severe cases, you can reduce itching with creams containing pramoxine, capsaicin or menthol.

Consult your doctor. In more advanced cases, consult your doctor before applying superficial corticosteroids or antihistamines and confirm that the cause of the itching can be relieved by these means.

Apply cold pressure. Applying cold pressure for 10 minutes or so can soothe itchy skin.

Keep your hands busy. You can keep your hands busy by using a stress ball to prevent itching the itchy areas. This can prevent the itching from increasing.


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