Are You Itchy? The Simple Pleasure of Scratching

I’ll be honest with you:  I’ve always been annoyed by, and dare I say, a bit snarky about the gluten-free trend. In my experience,  “gluten intolerance” mostly seems to affect upper middle class white hipsters and soccer moms with disposable income.  As a friend of mine told me once, “only you white girls can afford food allergies”.

Then I started seeing a new doctor last spring and she suggested I stop eating gluten, pointing to research that gluten can aggravate autoimmune conditions.  “It may be why your thyroid meds aren’t working well for your Hashimoto’s,” she said as I stared at her like she was crazy.  “Also it might help with that rash you have.”

She had me there.  I’d been to my previous doctor four times over the past year about this stupid itchy rash on my shins that refused to go away.  That’s three times more than I normally go to the doctor in a year, by the way.  On my last visit, apparently out of ideas, she blamed it on perimenopause.  I became enraged.  “I swear to god, I could come in here with a bone protruding and blood gushing from my arm and you’d blame it either on perimenopause or me being fat,” I responded with irritation.  “That’s your answer for everything!”  After that visit I changed doctors, and now this new doctor wanted to take away my beer and pasta.  Sigh.

She urged me to just try it for 30 days.  So grudgingly I did it, mostly to prove her wrong. The joke was on me… rash finally went away.  I was so happy that I forgot how miserable I’d been.

Fast forward to December….holidays, my birthday,  our annual overnight shipment of real pizza from Chicago and then gradually I was back to eating gluten, although much less than before, like a few times a week.  And I felt mostly fine. Maybe gluten didn’t bother me at all in small amounts, I told myself.  Until a few weeks ago when the rash came back. With a vengeance. Apparently it’s cumulative? Anyway, now I’m super itchy, especially at night.  Not just where the rash is, but all over my body.  Damn it.

I know what you’re thinking, then stop eating gluten again dummy.  Yeah, I know.  Except I’m about to go on vacation in a week and I know realistically I’m not going to make major changes until I get back.

So in the meantime, I’m itchy.  And scratchy.   (I really love the Simpsons, that Itchy & Scratchy cracks me up).  And even with my fancy prescription prednisone cream that is tier-whatever-is-the-most-exhorbitantly-expensive co-pay on my health insurance the only thing that seems to help the itch is scratching. At least temporarily.

There’s always such a moment of relief when you scratch an itchy spot, which made me wonder:  why does scratching an itch feel so good?  And of course I turned to my favorite medical research site: google.

According to my friends at Web MD, when you scratch your skin, regardless of the reason for the itch, it triggers a mild pain response in your skin. This tells your brain to focus on what’s causing the pain, essentially distracting it from the itching.  Your brain releases serotonin and lights up the pleasure centers in your brain to counteract the pain, which is great, until it isn’t, because eventually you just start being itchy in the same spot, or sometimes in totally unrelated spots.  The more you scratch, the more you itch. It’s a vicious cycle.

If you have a rash, scratching could make it spread to a larger area, making you more miserable. Scratching can also lead to breaks in the skin, which opens you up to potential infection and skin damage.

Scratching can be contagious or psychosomatic, which is why being around someone itching might make you suddenly feel itchy too, or why hearing a coworker tell you about their kid’s lice makes your head itch for no reason.

Horrifying side note:  while researching this post I saw an actual case study published by the National Institute of Health where a woman’s head was so itchy she scratched through to her brain.  Seriously, she scratched through her skull — and she said it didn’t hurt!  I’m not making this up, you can read it yourself here.

Before you scratch through to your brain, or I scratch through to my tibia (shin) bone, here are some tips I found to help with itching:

  • Rub, pat, tap or hold the itchy spot instead of scratching it
  • Pinch the skin around the itchy area
  • Wear gloves to prevent scratching (which reminds me of when we were kids and our parents duct taped oven mitts on us when we had chicken pox — don’t judge them, all the parents in our neighborhood did it)
  • Use ice, a wet compress or take a cool shower
  • Try to keep fabrics and jewelry off the area if possible
  • Since dryness often is a contributing factor, be sure to drink a lot of water
  • Apply an unscented hypoallergenic lotion or coconut oil
  • Soak a cotton ball with diluted peppermint oil or a 1:1 ratio of apple cider vinegar and water and apply to the itchy area  (but not if you have open sores)
  • Take a cool bath with colloidal oatmeal or baking soda
  • Use an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, calamine lotion or take an antihistamine allergy pill
  • If you’re me, stop eating foods that make you itch

Here’s hoping this brings me some relief until I get back from vacation and say goodbye to my dear friend gluten again.

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