National Cancer Institute
Last Modified: August 3, 2011
This patient summary on pruritus is adapted from a summary written for health professionals by cancer experts. This and other credible information about cancer treatment, screening, prevention, supportive care, and ongoing clinical trials is available from the National Cancer Institute. Pruritus (itching) is a side effect of some cancer therapies and may be a symptom of some types of cancers. This brief summary describes pruritus, its causes and treatment.
This summary is about pruritus in adults with cancer.
Pruritus is an itching sensation that triggers the desire to scratch. It is a distressing symptom that can cause discomfort. Scratching may cause breaks in the skin that may result in infection. Pruritus can be related to anything from dry skin to undiagnosed cancer. It can occur in people who have cancer or in those who have received cancer treatment.
Drugs given at any time during cancer treatment may cause pruritus. Itching may be caused by sensitivity to the drug, or the drug may interfere with normal nerve function.
Pruritus can be a symptom of infection. The infection may or may not be related to cancer treatment. Infections involving itching may be caused by a tumor, fungus, discharge from a wound, or drainage after surgery.
Pruritus is a symptom, not a diagnosis or disease. If you feel itching, let your doctor know. The doctor will ask for your medical history and give you a thorough physical examination. This assessment will enable the doctor to discover the problem that is causing the itching and find the best treatment for it.
In addition to the skin-care factors, medications applied to the skin or taken by mouth may be necessary to treat pruritus. Antibiotics may relieve itching caused by infection. Antihistamines may be useful in some cases of pruritus. Sedatives, tranquilizers, and antidepressants may be useful treatments. Aspirin seems to have reduced itching in some patients but increases it for others. Aspirin combined with cimetidine may be effective for patients with Hodgkin lymphoma or polycythemia vera.
Interrupting the itch-scratch-itch cycle, an increase in itching that can result from the process of scratching, may also help to alleviate pruritus. The cycle may be broken by applying a cool washcloth or ice over the affected area. Rubbing the skin and applying pressure or vibration to the skin may also help. Other methods that may be useful in relieving symptoms include distraction, music therapy, relaxation, and imagery techniques.
Editorial changes were made to this summary.
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