If you have eczema skin you’ll understand the itch. It’s something everyone with sensitive skin, from psoriasis to rosacea, and atopic dermatitis to topical steroid withdrawal has expert experience of. And all everyone tells us to do is to stop scratching… if only it were that simple.
Never tell someone to stop scratching
So firstly, if you’ve said that anyone, your child, your friend, your partner… anyone. Stop it right now, because we can’t. We already feel a lot of guilt and shame, and telling us off for responding to a natural and infuriating urge only makes is hide it from you.
Even worse are the people who smack our hands to make us stop. Don’t you dare do that!
You’re not helping. We don’t stop. You just shame us into keeping or dirty habit a secret.
The dream would be to conquer that itch, but what if there were ways of taking control sometimes? To do that we need to understand the itch.
The science behind why we itch
Itching is actually a very natural and in built reaction which goes back to caveman times. If a bug, parasite or mosquito lands on your arm, the body reacts with an uncomfortable tickly sensation and you brush it off or scratch the area to remove it. You do this without thinking. The same applies to things like plants that night irritate the skin, if things brush our bodies we don’t like it and brush it off also. I’m simplifying a very complex process here, but when you itch, it’s a natural response to something your body is responding to. There is way more to it than that but if we can see it’s really inbuilt and natural, we can begin to stop beating ourselves up quite so much.
The brain definitely plays a part; we know that it sends messages via nerves to the skin, but researchers still understand very little about this mechanism. We don’t know why it happens and what can be done to prevent, alleviate or bypass it.
This cool video. a TED talk on Why do we itch? helps to explain it a little further…
To find our more, visit the National Eczema Society to read, The complex science behind why we itch.
Ten different kinds of itching
I’ve been planning this blog for a while as I search for ways to help myself stop scratching or lessen the time I spend giving into the urge. In order to get my head around that I wanted to really unpick the times when I do scratch, are the patterns, triggers? What can I do about that? I can’t quite believe but I found ten different kinds of scratching
- Allergic – whether it’s caused by food or an external contact allergen like dust, pollen or animal hair and dander, the allergic itch is one of the hardest to ignore. It’s usually accompanied by hives, itchy raised bumps that drive you insane. One of my least favourite kinds of itch.
- Healing cycle – when you scratch, you itch. It’s so annoying but the very act of healing makes you itch, so it can be a vicious cycle. If you can cover the healing skin it can help you ride out that itch.
- Habitual – You might be thinking it’s not a habit, I’m itchy, but bear with me. Do you always scratch when you go the loo? go to bed? Get home from a day out and change your clothes? I definitely have times when I just start to scratch and I can also now use tactics to distract myself. Like when I go to the loo, grabbing the toilet roll I’ll need straight away and making a consious effort to hold it with both hands on my lap, or having a book or magazine to hand. Or try putting moisturiser gently when you change clothes to see if that can stop you habitually having a scratch. Even just the knowledge that this might happen can help you take a second before giving into the habit. Try it!
- Waking up an itch – this is annoying, but I definitely to this too. My skin can be quite calm but I’ll start picking or rubbing and I can start of a serious itch attack from no where.
- TSW bone deep itch – There is nothing else to say about this except IYKYN. It’s the pits and you will be powerless to ignore this one. It’s like it’s coming from so deep inside you that you need to rip something out to free you. Just know that it’s the deep skin layer healing and it will pass.
- Lifestyle itch – when you’re rushed, stressed, anxious, agitated… you could well find yourself feeling itchy. I know when I’m anxious I often find myself feeling very itchy too. Learning breathing techniques and working out how to slow your heart rate and calm your nervous system can really help. It’s a life’s practise and will help in many other areas of your life.
- Diet and inflammation – some foods can be more itchy and cause inflammation in the skin. Obvious culprits often blamed for itchy skin are processed foods, dairy produce, alcohol, tomatoes etc. Check out the Itchy Dozen and consider whether they might be causing you itching. You might like to start keeping a food, mood and symptom diary to track this. Other foods such as high histamine, high salicylate etc. can also cause itching.
- Dry skin – When it’s dry it can be itchy, for me anyway, so keeping hydrated and making sure you have emollients or moisturisers with you can avoid some of the dry skin itch fests.
- Irritation – by this I mean things like clothing that itches you like wool or things that make you hot like nylon and acrylic. Stick to natural fibres and ditch the itchy jumpers. Also things like going for a run and getting hot and sweaty can be really uncomfortable to so go prepared with cooling towels, water, a fan etc. to help minimise damage.
- Enjoyment – OK I’m going to come right out and say it, I quite like scratching. It can feel amazing and sometimes that’s why I do it. To satiate an itch yea for sure but I also know who amazing it feels when you really let rip and get into that scratching trance. Not sure how to work this one out but over time I’m seeing gentleness and self care as more helpful and this can also feel wonderful too.
By understanding what’s going on in your body and on your skin, can you find ways to sometimes avoid scratching? Or start to put things in place that can help to alleviate the itch and certain times. Every second that you avoid scratching is a win, so start slowly.
Can we understand our itching and prevent scratching?
I’ve been scratching my wrist with a pen lid while writing this so I’m no angel and I don’t have this one sewn up fully, but now I’ve moisturised and I’m going to bandage up the wrist in question to see if I can ride out the itch cos it will not stop itching – it’s in a little healing phase and it’s driving me mad. It seems even thinking about itching and writing about it makes me itchy!
Can you relate to any of these? Have I missed any? When do you find you scratch most? Are you able to stop yourself scratching?
All I want you to do for now is to observe and not to try too hard. Don’t beat yourself up and don’t try too hard to stop. Part of the battle is accepting the situation, understanding it and almost welcoming the discomfort. Sit with it, and ask the skin, what’s this all about then? What are you trying to teach me today? I even find looking at the itchy area of skin can help.
It’s so hard to get your head around and even harder to ignore any itching but I would love to hear your thoughts on this one.
You may also be interested in reading:
- The Shape of Skin – eczema poetry book crammed with wonderfully powerful poems about scratching!
- Is scratching eczema a form of self harm?
- Stop Scratching – a poem about scratching eczema skin