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The following causes of itchy legs fall into one of these four categories.
Why Do My Legs Itch?
Is there a spot on your leg you can’t stop scratching? Do your legs often feel itchy all over? If you said yes to either question, you know how distressing this symptom can be.
Itching can wake you up in the middle of the night. After a while, it can cause anxiety and even depression. If you scratch, that can make it even more intense.
There are many reasons why your legs itch. Some are no big deal, such as dry winter skin or wearing rough fabrics. Others are more serious.
Diabetes can lead to widespread problems, including pruritis — the medical term for unusually itchy skin. When you have itchy legs with diabetes, the cause may be:
- High blood sugar. This can cause extremely dry skin, which triggers the urge to scratch.
- Poor circulation. Common in diabetes, poor circulation can also cause itchy legs.
- Nerve damage (neuropathy). Pain and numbness are typical symptoms of diabetic nerve damage, but some people get a sensation called neuropathic itch.
- Diabetic kidney disease (nephropathy). Kidney disease is common in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. One symptom is a persistent itch.
- Eruptive xanthomatosis. When your diabetes isn’t well controlled, you may have outbreaks of small, itchy, pimple-like bumps. They usually appear on your thighs, the backs of your knees, your buttocks, or the crooks of your elbows.
- Skin conditions.Skin conditions can be chronic, which means they stick around for a long time — possibly your lifetime. They can also last just hours or days. Skin conditions that can cause itchy legs include:
- Insect bites
You may have extremely dry, itchy skin without a root cause. This is a skin condition on its own. The medical term is xerosis.
Itchiness may be a sign of serious disease — one you may or may not know you have.
- Lymphomas. Itching often happens in people with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cutaneous T-cell lymphoma.
- Skin cancer. Many times, the only sign of this cancer is a spot on your skin. It can be new or a mole that changes shape or size. Sometimes it will itch — this may be what makes you notice it.
- Advanced kidney disease. Even if your condition isn’t related to diabetes, an itch is a common symptom when your kidneys begin to fail and you need dialysis.
- Liver disease. Does the itch start on your palms or the soles of your feet, then spread outward? There could be a problem with your liver. You may have cirrhosis or a blocked bile duct. Hepatitis C, a viral infection that causes inflammation of the liver, can also cause itchy skin. Fortunately, it’s often curable with medications you take for 2 to 6 months.
- Thyroid disease. Thyroid problems are another possible cause of itchy skin. In some cases, thyroid disease can cause chronic hives. These look like raised, itchy, red, or skin-colored patches that can come and go.
Take a close look at your itchy legs. Are they red because you’ve scratched them, or is there a rash? Itchy rashes are a sign of an allergic skin reaction called contact dermatitis. These are some common triggers:
- Nickel (found in many metals, including zippers)
- Poison ivy
- Laundry detergents
- Fabric softeners
Sometimes an itch is a side effect of medication. It’s especially common with opioid painkillers. The itch from these drugs doesn’t usually come with a rash or hives.
Several cancer medications cause the sensation, too. These drugs may or may not cause skin symptoms.
An itch can also be a sign of an allergic reaction. In fact, skin reactions are the most common form of allergic reaction to a drug. These are some of the drugs that often cause allergic reactions:
- Penicillin-based antibiotics
- Sulfa drugs
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Four Simple Itch Treatments
Some home treatments can reduce or stop the urge to scratch your legs. Here’s what dermatologists (skin doctors) suggest.
- Apply cold to the area. Use an ice pack or a cool, wet cloth.
- Take an oatmeal bath. Don’t use the breakfast kind, though. The type you want is a fine powder called colloidal oatmeal. It helps clean, moisturize, and protect skin. It’s also an anti-inflammatory.
- Keep skin hydrated. Doctors suggest this simple step for itch relief even when there’s a serious cause, such as kidney disease. Be sure to use a fragrance-free moisturizer to reduce the chances of irritation.
- Try a pain-relief cream with pramoxine. This ingredient can give you short-term relief from:
- Insect bites
- Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac
- Minor skin irritations
- Very dry skin
When to See a Doctor
You’re never wrong to call your doctor whenever you have a health concern. Itching is no exception. But to help you decide between toughing it out and making an appointment, here’s some advice that can help.
Experts say you should see a doctor if your itch:
- Lasts more than 2 weeks despite home treatments
- Is severe, distracting, or keeps you up at night
- Comes on fast for no clear reason
- Affects your whole body
- Comes on with other symptoms, including extreme tiredness or fever
Often, treatment of the base cause will give you relief. It can help to get your diabetes under control or stop taking a drug that causes itching.
Mayo Clinic: “Itchy skin (pruritus),” “Diabetic neuropathy,” “Diabetic nephropathy,” “Hepatitis C,” “Chronic hives.”
American Academy of Dermatology: “Diabetes: 12 warning signs that appear on your skin,” “10 reasons your skin itches uncontrollably and how to get relief.”
Hippokratus: “Pruritus in certain internal diseases.”
Diabetes Care: “Barely Scratching the Surface.”
Seminars in Nephrology: “Pruritus in Kidney Disease.”
American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: “Skin Allergy,” “Medications and Drug Allergic Reactions,” “Drug Allergies.”
Current Problems in Dermatology: “Drug-induced Itch Management.”
Journal of Drugs in Dermatology: “Colloidal oatmeal: history, chemistry and clinical properties.”
Itchy Legs: Causes and Treatment
Angelica Bottaro is a writer with expertise in many facets of health including chronic disease, Lyme disease, nutrition as medicine, and supplementation.
Published on February 03, 2022
Rochelle Collins, DO, is a board-certified family medicine doctor currently practicing in Bloomfield, Connecticut.
If you notice that your legs are more itchy than normal, it’s likely not a cause for concern. Itchy legs are commonly caused by dry skin, but this feeling can also be indicative of more serious conditions.
It’s important to avoid scratching your itchy legs, as this may cause further damage to the skin and can make the area feel even more sensitive. Read on to learn more about what causes itchy legs and what you can do to alleviate the itch.
The causes of itchy legs can be broken up into four categories:
- Neurogenic : This type of itch is driven by issues with the nervous system, which is the body’s communication pathway.
- Psychogenic : This feeling of itchiness is caused by a psychological disorder.
- Neuropathic : An itch that’s caused by nerve damage in the body.
- Pruriceptive : Itchiness that is generated in the skin itself. For instance, the skin may become itchy and irritated in reaction to an insect bite.
The following causes of itchy legs fall into one of these four categories.
Dry skin belongs to the pruriceptive category, which is the most common cause of itchy legs. Dry skin occurs when the skin lacks moisture and becomes dehydrated.
Certain allergens can lead to extremely itchy legs. The most common allergen that people come into contact with is nickel, but other irritating substances found in hygiene products, nail polish, and latex are also common. When an allergic reaction occurs, the skin will feel intensely itchy and a rash will develop.
Products That Contain Nickel
In today’s world, it’s hard to avoid contact with nickel because the substance can be found in many products that are used every day. Products with nickel include eyeglass frames, zippers, belt buckles, jewelry, and cellphones.
Diabetes isn’t often thought to be associated with skin ailments, however, the disease does have several skin manifestations. Some of the skin issues associated with diabetes can cause itching, such as:
- Necrobiosis Lipodica Diabeticorum (NLD)
- Granuloma Annulare (GA)
People with diabetes are also more likely to have dry skin due to high blood sugar levels that, overtime, can damage the nerves in the legs. This, in turn, can cause the legs to become itchy.
Various other types of disease can also cause itchy legs to occur. Some include:
- Skin cancer
- Blood diseases or diseases that affect the blood such as Hodgkin’s lymphoma or cutaneous T-cell lymphoma
- Kidney disease
- Liver diseases such as hepatitis C or cirrhosis
- Hyperthyroidism, which is a disease that develops when the thyroid gland produces too much of certain key hormones needed by the body
- Hand, foot, and mouth disease, which is a type of viral infection that can cause severe itching on the legs
- Multiple sclerosis
Itchy Legs As a Warning Sign
Sometimes, having extremely itchy legs can alert you to an underlying health condition. If you have chronic and intense itchy legs that are not relieved by removing allergens, changing moisturizers, or keeping the skin hydrated, you should see a healthcare professional.
Skin conditions are another likely culprit behind the itchy sensation in your legs. There are several types of skin conditions that lead to itch. The symptom itself may be mild or severe, and can be accompanied by a rash. Skin conditions that lead to itchy legs include:
- Various types of eczema
- Chickenpox and shingles, which are both caused by the same virus
- Folliculitis , which develops because of inflammation to hair follicles on the body
- Neurodermatitis , which is a skin condition that causes intense and chronic itchy skin that worsens when it is scratched
- Ringworm, which is a type of fungal infection that affects the skin and causes a ring-like rash
Certain medications can cause your legs to become itchy, such as:
- Prescription strength painkillers like opioids
- Antimalarials , which are designed to treat or prevent malaria
- Hydroxyethyl starch , which is a drug that is used to help prevent shock after a person loses a significant amount of blood
- Some blood pressure drugs
- Anticancer drugs
There are many insects that bite and leave behind a feeling of itchiness. For example, mosquito bites typically cause an itchy sensation, but this feeling tends to fade once the bite heals.
The itchy feeling can be intense and may become chronic if the culprit is not identified, which can sometimes be the case with bed bugs, mites, or lice. If you suspect that you have been bitten or infected with any of these insects, it’s best to seek out immediate treatment to remove the bugs from your skin, scalp, and home.
Treating itchy legs depends highly on the cause. If your itchy legs are caused by dry skin, restoring moisture and hydration can help to relieve the symptom. There are also topical lotions, like hydrocortisone cream, that can be purchased over-the-counter to help relieve the itch that is caused by certain skin conditions such as eczema.
Other ingredients to look out for when purchasing itch-relieving creams are pramoxine and ceramide . Studies have shown that these two ingredients are well tolerated and effective at relieving itchiness.
In the event that you have a more serious skin condition, you may require a topical prescription to help manage and control flare-ups that cause itching. In other instances where the itch stems from a systemic or whole body disease, you will need to talk to a healthcare provider for treatment.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
Many cases of itchy legs can improve significantly with over-the-counter products and at-home remedies. However, there are some cases where you will need to see a healthcare professional:
- Intense itching that does not go away with the use of moisturizers or other at-home treatment methods
- Itchiness is accompanied by a rash that continues to get worse
- The itch interferes with your ability to get a good night’s sleep
Any symptoms of another type of disease along with itchy legs could be indicative of an underlying health condition. In this case, you should book an appointment with your healthcare provider.
Since dry or irritated skin is the most common reason a person’s legs might itch, it’s typically not a cause for concern. Although underlying disease, such as diabetes, as well as other skin conditions can sometimes be a cause of itchy legs.
You’ll likely be able to treat the itch at home using moisturizing agents to help heal the dry skin. However, if you are experiencing other symptoms, like a rash or an itch that does not resolve over time, this warrants a trip to your physician.
A Word From Verywell
Itchy legs can be irritating, especially if the feeling interferes with your day-to-day life. The good news is that itchy legs are typically harmless, and for the most part, are often caused by treatable dry skin or skin conditions. Getting the proper treatment or visiting with your doctor about your symptom will get you on the road to itch-free legs.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why are my legs so itchy at night?
There are various things that can cause itchy legs at night. Insect bites such as bed bugs, for example, could cause worsened itchiness during the nighttime hours. That being said, restless leg syndrome is often the culprit behind nighttime itchiness.
Does poor circulation cause itchy legs?
Poor circulation occurs when the body isn’t circulating blood as it should. Although itching isn’t a typical symptom of poor circulation, it can be. Poor circulation often occurs in people who have diabetes, which is a condition that can drive the symptom of itchy legs.
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By Angelica Bottaro
Angelica Bottaro is a professional freelance writer with over 5 years of experience. She has been educated in both psychology and journalism, and her dual education has given her the research and writing skills needed to deliver sound and engaging content in the health space.