Medical News Today: Does diabetes cause itching?

People with diabetes experience skin itching at higher rates than those without the condition. Ultimately, itching can lead to excessive scratching, which can cause discomfort and pain.

A study of nearly 2,700 people with diabetes and 499 without diabetes found that itching was a common diabetes symptom. An estimated 11.3 percent of those with diabetes reported skin itching versus 2.9 percent of people without diabetes.

A person with diabetes should not ignore itchy skin. Dry, irritated, or itchy skin is more likely to become infected, and someone with diabetes may not be able to fight off infections as well as someone who does not have diabetes.

There are a variety of treatments available that can help to reduce diabetes-related skin itching so that a person can be more comfortable and avoid other skin complications.

Causes of diabetes itching

Lady scratching her left arm

There are a variety of reasons why diabetes might cause excessive itching.

There are many reasons why a person with diabetes might experience itching more often than someone else. Sometimes itching can result from damaged nerve fibers located in the outer layers of skin.

Often, the cause of diabetes-related itching is diabetic polyneuropathy or peripheral neuropathy. This condition occurs when high blood glucose levels damage nerve fibers, particularly those in the feet and hands. 

Before the nerve damage occurs, the body experiences high levels of cytokines. These are inflammatory substances that can lead to a person’s skin itching. 

Sometimes, persistent itchiness may indicate that someone with diabetes is at risk of nerve damage, so the itchiness should never be ignored. 

Also, people with diabetes can experience associated disorders that include kidney or liver failure. These conditions may also cause itching. 

A person with diabetes can experience skin itching related to a new medication they are taking. In this instance, they should not stop their medication until they confirm with their doctor that they have experienced an allergic reaction. The doctor will also need to prescribe a replacement medication.

Another reason for itching may be an underlying skin condition. Examples of these include:

Sometimes dry, itchy skin can indicate that a person is using skin products that are irritating to the skin. Perfumes, dyes, and strong soaps can all dry out the skin, leading to itchiness. 

A person may also have dry or sensitive skin, particularly in the winter.

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The symptoms associated with diabetes itching vary and depend on the cause. 

For example, if a person has peripheral neuropathy, they are more likely to experience itching on the lower parts of the legs. This is the area peripheral neuropathy most commonly affects.

Peripheral neuropathy can also cause a loss of sensation in the areas where it occurs, usually the feet or hands, as well as itchiness. These symptoms can be accompanied by a tingling sensation. 

Itching can make a person feel uncomfortable in their clothes, wake them up in the night, and make them feel as if they constantly need to scratch. Often, diabetes itching treatments can improve a person’s quality of life. 

Other diabetes-related skin conditions that can cause itching and other symptoms include: 

  • Eruptive xanthomatosis: This condition causes pimple-like bumps that have a yellow color. They are often tender to touch and may be itchy. These bumps tend to appear if a person has high cholesterol.

  • Necrobiosis lipodica: This condition causes the skin to be both itchy and painful. It also causes raised, pimple-like bumps on the skin that form in patches and may swell.

  • Skin infections: Sometimes the skin can become itchy from an underlying infection. As well as itching, skin can appear reddened, feel hot or be swollen. Small blisters may also appear and produce a liquid discharge.

How to relieve diabetes itching

A hot bath being run
It is recommended to avoid taking very hot baths to prevent itching.

A person with diabetes can take several steps to maintain healthy skin and prevent itching. These include: 

  • Managing diabetes carefully and preventing blood sugar levels from becoming too high.

  • Avoiding taking very hot baths. Hot water can strip the skin of its natural moisture. 

  • Applying skin lotion immediately after drying off from a bath, although a person with diabetes should not apply lotion between the toes, as this, together with moisture, can attract harmful fungi.

  • Avoiding moisturizers with harsh perfumes or dyes. Ideally, a lotion should be labeled as “gentle” or “hypoallergenic.” Some manufacturers create diabetes-specific lotions for the body.

Lifestyle changes may also help reduce skin symptoms. These include eating a healthful diet and managing blood sugar levels throughout the day. 

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When to see a doctor

A person should see their doctor if they cannot control their skin itching with at-home treatments after about two weeks. While everyone may have itchy skin from time to time, itchy skin for people with diabetes can signal poor diabetes control and potential nerve damage. 

A doctor can evaluate areas of dry or patchy skin to determine if diabetes or an underlying skin condition is the cause. 

They may prescribe treatments or recommend changes to someone’s diabetes management routine. Ideally, these changes can ensure they are not bothered by itchiness and irritation. 

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