Itch (Latin: pruritus) is an unpleasant sensation that evokes the desire or reflex to scratch. Itch has many similarities to pain and both are unpleasant sensory experiences but their behavioral response patterns are different. Pain creates a reflex withdrawal while itch leads to a scratch reflex. Unmyelinated nerve fibers for itch and pain both originate in the skin, however information for them is conveyed centrally in two distinct systems that both use the same peripheral nerve bundle and spinothalamic tract.
Historically, the sensations of itch and pain have not been considered to be independent of each other until recently where it was found that itch has several features in common with pain but exhibits notable differences. The physiological mechanisms of itch are currently poorly understood and this is mainly due to the lack of animal models of itch. Pruritic stimuli mostly create the same reactions as noxious stimuli in experimental animals, but humans are capable of discerning the distinct features of itch and pain. Therefore human studies have provided most of the information regarding the processing of pruritic stimuli.
Studies have been done to show that itch receptors are only found on the top two skin layers, the epidermis and the epidermal/dermal transition layers. Shelley and Arthur had verified the depth by injecting individual itch powder spicules (Mucuna pruriens) and found that maximal sensitivity was found at the basal cell layer or the innermost layer of the epidermis. Surgical removal of those skin layers removed the ability for a patient to perceive itch. Itch is never felt in muscle, joints, or inner organs, which show that deep tissue does not contain itch signaling apparatuses.
Sensitivity to pruritic stimuli is not even across the skin and has a random spot distribution with similar density to that of pain. The same substances that elicit itch upon intracutaneous injection (injection within the skin) elicit only pain when injected subcutaneously (beneath the skin). Itch is readily abolished in skin areas treated with nociceptor excitotoxin capsaicin but remains unchanged in skin areas which were rendered touch-insensitive by pretreatment with saponins, an anti-inflammatory agent. Although experimentally induced itch can still be perceived under a complete A-fiber conduction block, it is significantly diminished. Overall, itch sensation is mediated by A-delta and C nociceptors located in the uppermost layer of the skin.
The inhibition of itch by painful stimuli, including heat, physical stimulus, and chemical stimulus, has been shown experimentally. In an article written by Louise Ward and others, they studied the effects of noxious and non-noxious counterstimuli, such as heat, physical vibration, or chemical stimulation on skin, in healthy adults after they had experimentally induced itch (transdermal iontophoresis of histamine) and pain (with topical mustard oil) in their skin. They found that when they induced non-noxious counterstimuli, the reduction of pain and itch was reduced only for up to 20 seconds. However when they induced noxious counterstimuli, there was a significant inhibition of itch for an extended period of time but no inhibition of pain. In addition, it was found that brief noxious stimuli created an anti-itch state for more than 30 minutes. These findings show that itch is not a subliminal form of pain and that noxious counterstimulus is likely to act through a central instead of a peripheral mechanism.
Painful electrical stimulation reduced histamine-induced itch for several hours at a distance up to 10 cm from the stimulated site, which suggests a central mode of action. A new method had been recently found, by Hans-Jorgen Nilsson and others, that is able to relieve itch without damaging the skin called cutaneous field stimulation (CFS). CFS consists of a flexible rubber plate with 16 needle-like electrodes placed regularly at 2-centimeter intervals in a 4 by 4 matrix used to electrically stimulate nerve fibers in the surface of the skin. The electrodes were stimulated continuously at 4 Hertz per electrode, pulse duration of 1 millisecond, intensity 0.4-0.8 milliamperes, and for 25 minutes. CFS resulted in a pricking and burning sensation that usually faded away very quickly. The burning sensation was still present during a selective block of impulse conduction of A-fibers in myelinated fibers indicating that nociceptive C-fibers are activated by CFS. In addition, a flare reaction had been noted to develop around the CFS electrodes which indicate activation of axon reflexes in nociceptive C-fibers. Itch, which was induced by transdermal iontophoresis of histamine, was inhibited within the skin area treated with CFS, and it was reduced 10 cm distally to a significant amount. CFS proves to offer a new method of combating itch by using painful electrical stimulation as it creates a long lasting inhibitory effect, does not create any significant skin injuries, and is simple to manage. It is able to activate powerful itch inhibitory mechanisms possibly routed through central mechanisms, which could normally be activated by scratching of the skin.
A study done by Gil Yosipovitch, Katharine Fast, and Jeffrey Bernhard showed that noxious heat and scratching was able to inhibit or decrease itch induced by transdermal iontophoresis of histamine and most interestingly, decrease skin blood flow. Twenty-one healthy volunteers participated in their study. Baseline measurements of skin blood flow were obtained on the flexor part of the forearm and then compared with skin blood flow after various stimuli. Then transdermal iontophoresis of histamine was performed and tested with various stimuli. It is well known that skin blood flow is significantly increased during mechanical scratching, warming, and noxious heat. However it is quite interesting that this study is the first to examine the changes of blood flow by stimuli during iontophoresis of histamine and how itch is perceived in those conditions. Its examination provided an unexpected result that noxious heat and scratching has an inhibitory effect.
A negative correlation was found between pain sensitivity and itch sensitivity. In a study done by Amanda Green and others, they aimed to determine itch-related genetic factors, and establish a more useful animal model for itch. They looked at 11 different inbred mouse strains and compared their scratching behavior in response to two itch inducing agents, histamine and chloroquine. Every strain revealed an inverted-U shape dose response relationship from chloroquine, indicating that moderate dosages produced more scratching than at higher dosages. An explanation is that higher dosage produces more pain and the presence of pain inhibits itch thereby lowering the amount of overall scratching. Another notable result was that histamine induced scratching occurred in female mice on average 23% more than males. Finally, it was found that mice having strains sensitive to pain were resistant to itch and vice versa.
The feeling of itchiness can be caused by a movement of hair or the release of a chemical (histamine) from cells under the skin. Itchiness is regarded as protective, as it helps creatures remove parasites that land on their skin.
Itching can be caused by:
Crotamiton (trade name Eurax) is an antipruritic agent available as a cream or lotion often used to treat scabies. Its mechanism of action remains unknown.
Sometimes scratching relieves isolated itches, hence the existence of devices such as the back scratcher. Often, however, scratching can intensify itching and even cause further damage to the skin, dubbed the "itch-scratch-itch cycle".
The mainstay of therapy for dry skin is maintaining adequate skin moisture and topical emollients.