Chronic itching can disrupt your life considerably. Certainly because there is often no cure for it. Scientist Antoinette van Laarhoven has been researching ways to reduce itching for years.
One in seven people suffer from chronic itching. "There are many conditions where itching is a symptom. Skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis, for example, or disorders such as kidney failure or rheumatism. It can also be a side effect of some medications," says Van Laarhoven, a biomedical researcher at the department. of Health, Medicine and Medicine. Neuropsychology at the University of Leiden. She has done doctoral research on the psychological processes of itching and pain.
People with chronic itching usually suffer from fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety and depressive symptoms. Van Laarhoven: "Itching can have a huge impact on daily functioning because of it."
Itching is a warning from the body
Itching is – just like pain – a warning from the body. "It's a sign that there is a threat or damage. With chronic itching, this warning function no longer works as it should."
What can you do about itchiness?
- Treat the underlying condition
- Do not scratch
- Keep nails short and wear cotton gloves at night
- Prevent dry skin with creams
- You focus on the things you enjoy doing, to pay less attention to itching.
Little scientific research is being done on itching. Pain and itching are known to largely activate the same areas in our brains. "This concerns areas of the brain that have to do with emotions, skin sensory stimuli and motor skills," says Van Laarhoven. "Motor areas, for example, are activated even before you scratch. If you only feel the itching."
Itching is minor when you are distracted
In his research, Van Laarhoven focuses primarily on psychological processes that reinforce the itch. For example, do you feel itching if you pay more attention to itching? "That really seems to be the case. If you get distracted by a particular task, for example, you will feel less itchy."
It also seems that itching can be reduced if you have positive expectations; so if you expect itching to subside. The same goes for the opposite: with negative expectations about itching, the itching gets worse.
By the way, itching is contagious, as is yawning. "If you see someone scratching, it will also itch and you will scratch," says Van Laarhoven. "This is also the case with people without chronic itching. Monkeys, too, but rodents, for example, don't. It's evolutionary, you see in more developed animals."
Itching is like yawning, contagious. If you see someone scratching, you will do it yourself. (Photo: 123RF)
Reducing itching is not so easy
Now the key question: what can you do about this maddening itch? "Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not so simple," explains Van Laarhoven. "First, of course, treat the condition. If the condition of the skin improves, the itching usually subsides. But that's not always the case."
And very important, according to Van Laarhoven: do not scratch. "A natural reaction to itching is scratching. This may relieve itching for a moment, but in the end it only makes itching worse. Certainly if you scratch it so much that the skin breaks. The skin must heal again and healing is followed. itching. That's how you end up in a vicious circle. "
Spotting oily creams or hormonal ointment usually doesn't help enough, research shows. That's why Van Laarhoven is looking for ways that help. Distract attention from itching, for example. "You can train that," she explains. There are hospitals that offer group therapies, including behavioral therapy, for example, holding something in your hands when you feel itchy. With this you can avoid scratching.
Unfortunately, there is no solution that easily and forever distracts you from itching. Van Laarhoven: "Maybe when you are at work, but at home – and especially at night – the itching may be back to its fullest intensity. The best thing is to try to address the chronic itching carefully. That the itching is there, and you learn to handle it in a good way. "