New Insights Into Chronically Itchy Skin

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Itchy skin (pruritus) can be caused by any number of irritants, allergies, and skin conditions. Wounds such as cuts or burns can also itch as they heal. However, sometimes itching appears to occur for no reason. For example, eczema can result in general itchiness even after the rash is completely cleared. This can be a nuisance causing no more than slight or occasional discomfort. Or, it can be so severe and constant that it causes a patient to scratch the affected area raw. Now, dermatologists, neurologists and other medical researchers are focusing attention on this topic and have come to some interesting conclusions.

Burning Linked to Itching

The same nerves that conduct sensations of heat to the brain are linked to the sensation of itching. In one study published in the Neuron scientific journal, researchers disclosed that mice whose nerve cells had been rendered unable to signal heat pain displayed an interesting behavior. Their response to heat stimuli was greatly reduced (as expected), but they started itching persistently. This indicates that the functionality of the nerves which control the transmission of heat pain is linked to the experience of chronically itchy skin. Now, there is speculation that stimulating these nerves may lead to a reduction in itching symptoms.

NIH Roundtable

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently sponsored a discussion among 50 physicians about a number of health conditions including pruritus. The goal is to help dermatologists and other medical professionals better manage care for patients who have severe or chronic itching. One recommendation is for the U.S. to create several itch referral centers. Here patient test results, tissue samples, and other information will be stored in a central database. The data can be readily analyzed and an expert treatment plan formed.

In Europe, there are already a number of itch referral centers. Their databases include information on tens of thousands of patients. Having so much data on such a broad patient population is a valuable research tool. The information can be used not just to benefit individual patients, but to identify environmental, behavioral, and genetic factors that may contribute to chronically itchy skin and to develop more effective treatments for the population at large. Since itching tends to become more severe and pervasive once a person is sensitized, prevention is also a top priority. Hopefully, the creation of itch centers will make these patient care goals more easily achievable.

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