Everyone’s skin itches, it’s safe to say, but older skin itches more. Nearly two-thirds of people over age 65 suffer from mild to severe bouts of itching — officially called pruritus — every week, according to the aptly named International Forum for the Study of Itch.
“Itch is very common among older patients. It’s probably one of the most common complaints that we as dermatologists encounter in the older population,” Dr. Mary Sheu of the dermatology department at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told Today’s Geriatric Medicine.
Aging skin produces less of the oil it needs to moisturize and form a protective layer. Because it is thinner, older skin is less able to retain moisture, and it produces less collagen that gives skin strength and elasticity to prevent drying and cracking, experts say.
Called xerosis, dry skin afflicts many older adults and is especially widespread among residents of long-term care facilities. So what should you do if itchy skin is affecting your life?
Try some products
Dry, artificial air can trigger itchiness. So too can sun exposure, hot baths, harsh soaps and some medications from aspirin to opioids. Then there are obvious culprits like scabies or ringworm.
One recent study looked at supersensitive skin that gets itchy at the lightest touch, a condition called alloknesis. The experiment found older mice scratched much more than young mice when touched by a nylon filament, and skin samples showed the older mice had far fewer so-called Merkel cells that sense light touch. The findings have not been replicated in humans, the study said.
Initial treatments for itching are simple — moisturizing soap, moisturizers applied within minutes of bathing (unscented is a good way to go if you’re worried about further irritation), oatmeal baths in lukewarm water, and gel from aloe vera leaves are all soothing, comforting remedies. If basic treatments are not enough, it’s worth looking into using antihistamines and phototherapy to relieve your discomfort.
“[Phototherapy is] basically getting into a medical-grade tanning booth with specific wavelengths of light that seem to be able to help some individuals with chronic pruritus,” said Sheu.
Talk to your doctor
Not only is prolonged and extreme itching uncomfortable and not a way that anyone wants to live, but Sheu reminded that it may actually be illuminating a much more serious condition. If uncomfortable itching persists, definitely consult a medical professional. There’s a chance an itch could be easily treated with topical creams, but in older patients especially, it’s not worth the risk of letting something serious go untreated.
Is it something more serious?
On a serious note, certain ailments tend to cause itching in older patients — chronic kidney disease, liver problems, gallbladder disease, and glandular disorders.
Some itching may even indicate an underlying cancer such as lymphoma or a tumor, and is even sometimes the first sign of gallbladder or liver cancer.
Don’t let embarrassment or fear of making a big deal stop you from talking with your doctor. That itch may be just the signal your physician needs to identify and halt a dangerous disease.