Side Effects of Cancer Treatment: Itching (Pruritus) Overview
Medically reviewed by C.H. Weaver M.D. Medical Editor 8/2020
Pruritus is an uncomfortable skin sensation, commonly called itching. It may be caused by any number of irritants to the skin, or it may be a result of cancer treatments or cancer itself. Treatments aim to reduce inflammation, pain, or reverse an allergic reaction. Taking care of your skin will also help manage itching.
- What is pruritus?
- What causes itching?
- What are the symptoms to watch for?
- How is itching treated?
- What else can I do?
What is pruritus
Pruritus is an uncomfortable skin sensation that results in itching or rubbing. Pruritus is commonly referred to as simply, “itching.” It may come on suddenly and be short-lived (acute), or it may be long-lasting (chronic).
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What causes itching
Itching can be caused by cancer treatment or the cancer itself. Cancers that involve the skin or have spread to the skin, such as malignant melanoma, leukemia and lymphoma, commonly cause itching. Itching may also be caused by the body’s inability to clear certain toxins due to kidney or liver problems. You should notify your doctor if you have any unusual itching.
Itching as a result of cancer treatment may be acute or chronic. Acute itching that occurs when certain chemotherapy drugs are administered may be a sign that you are having an allergic reaction to that drug. Cancer treatments that are associated with chronic, or long-term itching, include:
- Radiation therapy
What are the symptoms to watch for
Itching may be an early symptom that you are having an allergic reaction. Notify emergency medical services (call 911) immediately if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling in your face or throat
How is itching treated
If itching is caused by an allergic reaction to a substance such as a drug, that medication should be discontinued. Treatments often involve medications that reduce inflammation or reverse symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Corticosteroid cream: Steroids work by reducing inflammation. Your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid cream that you rub on the irritated skin.
Antihistamine: Antihistamines reduce symptoms of an allergic reaction, such as rash, hives and shortness of breath. Your doctor may recommend antihistamines that can be purchased over-the-counter. An example is diphenhydramine (Benadryl®).
Analgesics: Itching may be a mild stimulation of your pain receptors. Over-the-counter medications can relieve pain. Examples are acetaminophen (Tylenol®) and aspirin.
What else can I do
To control or reduce the symptoms of chronic itching, take care of your skin. Try the following tips:
- Drink plenty of fluids to keep your body well hydrated. Dehydration will cause your skin to dry out and become more itchy
- Use lotions, creams, or oils to relieve dry skin, which may make itching worse. These products prevent water loss by placing an oily substance over the skin to keep water in or by attracting water to the outer skin layer from the inner skin layer.
- Use products that are mild and do not have perfume. The chemicals that are responsible for fragrances may further irritate your skin.
Things to avoid:
- Any allergen; skin reactions are very common when you are exposed to something you are allergic to
- Perfumed skin products; perfumes can be allergens and the chemicals may further irritate your skin
- Friction or rubbing on your skin; scratching may make the itching sensation worse
- Long hot baths with bubble bath; try a cool bath and apply a mild, doctor recommended lotion when you are finished
- Extreme weather such as hot/dry or cold/windy; these will make your skin dry and itchy
Things to try for relief:
- Massage the area that itches
- Vibration may also relieve itching
- Massage with an ice cube over the area that itches
- Wear soft, non-binding clothes.
- Wash clothes in mild detergent.