Why Is Dermatitis Itchy?

Dermatitis, whether caused by a chronic condition or a temporary reaction to something, is characterised by itchy skin; we look at the reasons why!

What’s the connection between dermatitis and itchiness? Dermatitis might be a condition involving inflammatory response, but it takes a bit of digging to discover why inflammation is inextricably linked to itch.

The inflammatory response

Dermatitis is all about how the body reacts to triggers; in contact dermatitis those triggers are primarily substances or materials that have touched your skin, and with atopic dermatitis (also known as eczema) those triggers can be psychological, environmental and physiological, as well as things you’ve come into direct physical contact with. But whatever the trigger, the result is the same: a release of substances in the body that cause inflammation.

The body does this as part of its immune system response, and the aim behind it is to protect itself from harm. By rushing blood to the site and releasing hormones into the bloodstream, it intends to heal any damage as quickly as possible, and allow you to escape danger. Unfortunately, in individuals prone to dermatitis, the reaction can be much more of an overreaction than anything beneficial. 

No one really knows exactly why the body overreacts to stimuli like this in some people but not others, or indeed to some substances but not others, but the consequence is that the inflammatory substances released into the bloodstream set off an itch sensation in the epidermis. Nerve fibres are triggered to react by nerve endings in the top layer of skin, and send messages to the brain that the area is itchy!

The itch-scratch cycle

The second half of this equation is the way that itching causes more itching. Itch, unlike pain, is a sensation that drives the sufferer to scratch at the affected area; scratching usually causes damage to the skin barrier, and that can allow irritants into the skin and simultaneously allow more moisture to escape, which in turn causes the skin to dry out and get even itchier. So the more you scratch, the more you itch, and the more you itch, the more you scratch. Breaking this cycle is key to managing dermatitis.

For more tips on managing the itch and getting on top of the itch-scratch cycle, see our article Itch-Scratch-Itch-Scratch!

For a more detailed explanation of eczema’s link with itch, see The National Eczema Assocation’s article Why Does Eczema Itch?

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