Without realizing it, your fingers and nails scratch different parts of the body. Surely while you are now reading these lines you will begin to do it and pay more attention to it. It is not necessary to be suffering from some infirmity to have itchy skin, and scratching is a natural reaction for the body (after receiving a signal from the brain) in order to alleviate the sensation.
Why does the skin itch?
On average we have 2 square meters (6 – 1/2 square feet) of skin, which makes it the most extensive organ in all our body. These proportions are exposed to many external agents in a direct way. But just like other parts of the body, the skin has its own mechanisms to prevent diseases and defend itself from what it considers a threat.
When the skin itches in a “normal” way it is called pruritus and is nothing more than an alert sign that the body gives us.
What can threaten our skin? All types of stimulants, such as dust in the air, rubbing by hair or clothing, an insect, sweating, scents from leaves or flowers, etc. Everything that touches our skin awakens receptors which sound the alarm to the brain, which then responds with a sensation: itchy skin.
The itching is relieved when we scratch, but the problem is that we can aggravate the situation if our fingers or nails are dirty, for example, or if we exert too much pressure against the skin. If the itching is much more serious or it hurts, it could be the result of an allergic reaction. Another reason for which we may constantly scratch our skin is if we are nervous, anxious, stressed or worried.
Main causes of itchy skin
- Excessive sweating
- Lack of hygiene
- Skin irritation
- Allergic reaction
- Use of strong chemical products
- Insect bites
- Mites o other microorganisms
- Secondary effects of medications
- Low temperatures
Various studies have indicated that there are neurons in the brain with a specific task: to indicate when something has landed on our skin and could cause us problems. In 2007 a team of scientists from the University of Washington (United States) discovered that we have pure nerve cells dedicated exclusively to managing the itching sensation. The research was carried out by a biologist, a psychiatrist and an anesthesiologist and was published in the journal Science.
The stimulus that is produced by the itch is collected by the nerve fibers that we have in all our body just below the skin. These send a signal to the brain by way of the spinal cord. Here is where the neurons make us realize that there is something that is making us itch. These nerve endings also are responsible for advising us when we feel pain.
To scratch or not to scratch, that is the question
When we scratch we are actually responding automatically to the stimulus that there is something bothering us, so to speak. This unconscious signal informs us that there is something that is provoking an irritation to the skin. Thus, when we scratch, we are providing a sensation of relief to the zone, by removing the offending agent. But also when the body stops being in a state of alert, it no longer sends the signal of an itch.
Another result of scratching is it distracts us from the itching sensation. However, we end up stimulating an area that is bigger than the one that itches, therefore, we can actually spread the threat and extend the itch.
Scratching is a reaction to a stimulation that we cannot control, just like coughing or sneezing. However, it is good to keep in mind, for example, that it is better to try and eliminate or avoid the things which are making us itch.
Based on another research from the University of Wake Forest in Winston / Salem, Oregon (United States), a dermatologist using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) analyzed what happens to the brain when we scratch. The participants had to use a brush to scratch the skin for 30 seconds and then stop for 30 seconds.
To the surprise of the team, they discovered that certain areas of the brain which are associated with unpleasant memories and emotions, were the ones that were “deactivated” when scratching. Perhaps this is the reason we fell a sensation of relief and calmness when we scratch.
What does the skin itch more in the winter?
Many people experience an increase in itchy skin during the coldest months of the year. This is due to the skin becoming dry due to low temperatures, wind or snow. It is most noted in the hands and the face, areas with the most contact with the cold. It could also be due to the fact that we use more hot water than in the summer this change of temperature dries the skin even more and can cause dermatitis if you also use soaps or detergents. Other possible reasons are the use of additional clothing which prevents the skin from breathing as it should or the itchy feeling from wool clothes or clothes with thick threads.
A good way to keep yourself from scratching and damaging your skin is to apply a little ice to the area where it itches by using cold compresses. Also, you can place a cloth soaked in chamomile tea or spread on green clay as a plaster. And finally, don’t forget the wonderful effects of aloe vera for the skin.