Why am I itchy all over?

Sometimes it’s easy to know why a particular part of your body is itchy. Maybe you have a bug bite, allergies, or a visible skin condition such as eczema. It’s harder to know the cause when there’s nothing obvious behind all-over, generalized itching. “It’s the most common skin complaint in people over age 65,” says Dr. Kenneth Arndt, a dermatologist and former medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Skin Care and Repair.

Potential causes

Generalized itching has many potential triggers. One is aging. “The skin barrier doesn’t work as well as it used to, and things that may not have irritated you before may now be absorbed in the skin and cause itching,” Dr. Arndt explains. “The skin also develops a somewhat impaired immune response, a reduction in fat and blood flow, and altered sensory perception, making it more prone to itching.”

Here are some other causes of generalized itching without obvious signs:

Environment. Very hot, dry environments or lots of hot showers can make the skin dry and itchy, as can excessive exposure to sunlight.

Lifestyle. Poor sleep, smoking, or an unhealthy diet may make the skin drier or more reactive to irritants.

Neuropathy. Nerve damage (neuropathy) that causes numbness, tingling, weakness, or pain can also cause itching. “People with diabetes get neuropathy and itching,” Dr. Arndt says. A pinched nerve, especially in the spine, may also lead to itching.

Medication. Itching may be a side effect of some drugs, such as hydrochlorothiazide (Esidrix, Hydrodiuril) to treat high blood pressure. “Even if you’ve been taking a medication that didn’t bother you before, manufacturers can change the inactive ingredients, such as the dye coloring the pill, and that may cause the itch,” Dr. Arndt points out.

Underlying conditions. Itching may be a symptom of liver, kidney, or thyroid disease; some types of cancer (lymph-omas); or iron deficiency anemia.

Psychological conditions. High stress, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are common causes of generalized itching. “For people with these conditions, symptoms of any kind, including itching, can be amplified,” Dr. Arndt says.

Allergens. Detergents, fabrics, cosmetics, dust, and plant pollen can cause itching from irritation. “One can acquire an allergic reaction to anything that comes in contact with the skin,” Dr. Arndt says.


When itching is interfering with your day, it’s time to see your doctor. Teasing out the cause requires investigation. You’ll need to be able to describe your symptoms, where they occur on your body and at what time of day, and how long you’ve been experiencing them.

Your doctor will consider your medical history, medications or supplements you’re taking, and your lifestyle. It may be necessary to order blood work to check your blood sugar; red and white blood cell counts; and the function of your thyroid, kidney, and liver.

If scratching your itch has caused a rash, bumps, swelling, redness, or lesions, your doctor will need to see that, too. But this can be misleading. “Sometimes the secondary effect of the itching is misdiagnosed as the cause of the itching,” Dr. Arndt says. “But if you’ve developed a rash, we might want to take a small sample of skin for examination under the microscope, which helps diagnose the cause.”


Getting rid of generalized itching starts with treating underlying conditions or changing your lifestyle. Taking too many hot showers? “Reduce the number to a few per week. Make the water warm, not hot, and use bland soap,” advises Dr. Arndt.

If you’re not already moisturizing your skin, it’s time to start. Dr. Arndt recommends using an emollient (a mixture of water and oil) every day, especially after washing your hands and after getting out of the bath or shower (to lock in moisture).

If your home is hot and dry, consider lowering the temperature and getting a humidifier. Aim for a goal of 40% humidity indoors.

When medication is the suspected cause of itching, you may need to switch to another kind. If it’s a supplement, you may need to go without it for a few weeks to see if that helps.

What if your doctor can’t find any particular cause for your generalized itching? Then it might be chalked up to aging (officially called Willan’s itch), and these treatments may help:

  • medication such as gabapentin (Neurontin), topical anesthetic patches or creams containing lidocaine, or antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
  • exposure to ultraviolet light several times per week (phototherapy).

Dr. Arndt suggests starting with the easiest methods first. “Moisturize and humidify,” he says, “and try an over-the-counter anti-itch cream that contains menthol. It feels cool, so you’ll be substituting one sensation for another, but you won’t itch.”

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

 “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” – Philippians 4:8

 “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” – Mark 11:24

 “Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” – Proverbs 12:25

 “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” – Luke 12:25

 “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” – Jeremiah 29:11

“If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” – Matthew 7:11

 “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” – Proverbs 17:22

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