AskDefine | Define itching

Dictionary Definition

itching n : an irritating cutaneous sensation that produces a desire to scratch [syn: itch, itchiness]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. present participle of itch

Extensive Definition

Itch (Latin: pruritus) is defined as 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.


Itch can originate in the peripheral nervous system (dermal or neuropathic) or in the central nervous system (neuropathic, neurogenic, or psychogenic).


Itch originating in the skin is considered pruritoceptive and can be induced by a variety of stimuli, including mechanical, chemical, thermal, and electrical stimulation. The primary afferent neurons responsible for histamine induced itch are unmyelinated C-fibers. In human C-fiber nociceptors, two major classes exist: mechano-responsive nociceptors and mechano-insensitive nociceptors. Mechano-responsive nociceptors have been shown in studies to respond to mostly pain and mechano-insensitive receptors respond mostly to itch induced by histamine. However it does not explain mechanically induced itch or when itch is produced without a flare reaction which involves no histamine. Therefore it is possible that pruritoceptive nerve fibers have different classes of fibers, which is currently unclear in current research.


Neuropathic itch can originate at any point along the afferent pathway as a result of damage of the nervous system. They could include diseases or disorders in the central nervous system or peripheral nervous system.


Neurogenic itch, which is itch induced centrally but with no neural damage, is often associated with increased accumulation of endogenous opioids and possibly synthetic opioids.
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 pain 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.

Peripheral sensitization

Inflammatory mediators such as bradykinin, serotonin (5-HT) and prostaglandins, released during a painful or pruritic inflammatory condition not only activates pruriceptors but also causes acute sensitization of the nociceptors. In addition, expression of neuro growth factors (NGF) can cause structural changes in of nociceptors such as sprouting. NGF is high in injured or inflamed tissue. Increased NGF is also found in atopic dermatitis, a hereditary and non-contagious skin disease with chronic inflammation. NGF is known to up-regulate neuropeptides, especially substance P. Substance P has been found to have an important role in inducing pain however there is no confirmation that substance P directly causes acute sensitization. Instead substance P may contribute to itch by increasing neuronal sensitization and may the affect release of mast cells, which contain many granules rich in histamine, during long-term interaction.


A variety of over-the-counter and prescription anti-itch drugs are available. Some plant products have been found to be effective anti-pruritics, others not. Non-chemical remedies include cooling, warming, soft stimulation.
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.

Sensations associated with scratching

Pain and itch have very different behavioral response patterns. Pain evokes a withdrawal reflex which leads to retraction and therefore a reaction trying to protect an endangered part of the body. Itch creates a scratching reflex which draws one to the affected skin site. For example, responding to a local itch sensation is an effective way to remove insects on the skin. Scratching has traditionally been regarded as a way to relieve one self by reducing the annoying itch sensation. However there are hedonic aspects of scratching as one would find noxious scratching highly pleasurable. It has been hypothesized that motivational aspects of scratching include the frontal brain areas of reward and decision making. These aspects might therefore contribute to the compulsive nature of itch and scratching.

Contagious itch

Events of “contagious itch” are very common occurrences. Even a discussion on the topic of itch can give one the desire to scratch. Itch is likely more than a localized phenomenon in the place we scratch. Results from a recent study showed that itching and scratching were induced purely by visual stimuli in a public lecture on itching. There is currently little detailed data on central activation for contagious itching but it is hypothesized that a human mirror neuron system exists in which we imitate certain motor actions when we view others performing the same action. A similar phenomenon in which mirror neurons are used to explain the cause is contagious yawning.



External links

itching in Aymara: Jasi
itching in German: Juckreiz
itching in Spanish: Prurito
itching in Esperanto: Jukado
itching in French: Prurit
itching in Korean: 가려움
itching in Ido: Prurito
itching in Italian: Prurito
itching in Latin: Pruritus
itching in Luxembourgish: Bass
itching in Dutch: Jeuk (prikkel)
itching in Japanese: 痒み
itching in Polish: Świąd
itching in Portuguese: Prurido
itching in Russian: Зуд
itching in Sicilian: Manciaciumi
itching in Simple English: Itch
itching in Finnish: Kutina
itching in Swedish: Klåda
itching in Telugu: దురద
itching in Thai: อาการคัน

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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