Can cancer cause itchy skin? Types, treatment and other causes

Itchy skin, or pruritus, can have many causes, and most are harmless. However, itchy skin can also be a symptom of certain types of cancer or a side effect of certain cancer treatments.

The itchy feeling of the skin can be itchy and uncomfortable. Additionally, repeated scratching can lead to complications, such as open sores and painful sores that increase the risk of infection.

People who suffer from persistent itching should contact a doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

In this article, we list the types of cancer that can cause itchy skin and provide tips on managing this skin condition. We also describe other causes of itchy skin and offer advice on when to see a healthcare professional.

A 2018 study of 16,925 people found that participants with generalized itchy skin, or pruritus, were more likely to also have cancer than those without pruritus.

The researchers note that pruritus is most strongly associated with the following types of cancer:

The researchers also note that black people with pruritus are more likely than white people to have skin, soft tissue and blood cancers. In contrast, Caucasians are at higher risk of developing liver, respiratory, gastrointestinal (GI) and gynecological cancers.

Below, we discuss in more detail the types of cancer that can cause pruritus.

Skin cancer

Health experts link skin cancer more commonly with skin changes than with itching.

However, cancer can stimulate nerve endings in the skin, causing itching.

Lymphoma

Lymphoma is a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system, which is a network of organs, glands, and vessels that plays an important role in immunity. Specifically, lymphoma affects white blood cells called lymphocytes.

Itching is a common symptom from a group of lymphomas called cutaneous T-cell lymphomas. Itching may be caused by nerve endings reacting to chemicals that the immune system releases in response to the lymphoma.

polycythemia vera

Polycythemia vera (PV) is a type of blood disorder that causes the body to produce too many red blood cells, white blood cells, or platelets. Experts don’t know the exact cause of PV, although most agree it stems from a genetic mutation.

Itchy skin is one of the symptoms of PV and usually occurs when the skin comes in contact with water.

This type of pruritus probably occurs due to an overproduction of immune cells that trigger the release of chemicals called histamines. Histamines then cause allergic symptoms, such as itchy skin.

Gastrointestinal cancers

Some cancers of the digestive system, such as gastrointestinal stromal tumors, can cause pruritus. However, if there are no other accompanying symptoms, an alternate diagnosis is more likely.

With gastrointestinal cancers, pruritus occurs due to blockage of the bile ducts connecting the liver and the small intestine. This blockage prevents the normal drainage of fluid from the blood into the intestines. These chemicals can then penetrate the skin, where they can trigger itching.

Although some types of cancer can lead to itchy skin, cancer is not the most common cause of this symptom. However, if cancer is the underlying cause, a person will most likely experience additional symptoms.

Many skin conditions can lead to itchy skin, such as:

Other possible causes of itchy skin include:

People may be able to manage itchy skin using home remedies, medical treatments, or a combination of the two.

home remedies

Tips for managing itchy skin at home include:

  • avoid scratching your skin, as this can cause sores that can become infected
  • bathe in lukewarm water, not hot
  • add baking soda, oatmeal, or bath oil to bath water
  • apply a skin cream without alcohol or perfume on damp skin 2 to 3 times a day
  • pat the skin dry, instead of rubbing
  • keep the indoor environment cool to prevent sweating
  • wear breathable and loose clothing
  • stay hydrated

Medical treatment

A person who experiences severe or persistent itchy skin should contact a doctor.

Depending on the person’s symptoms, the doctor may order tests such as:

The type of treatment a doctor recommends for itchy skin will depend on the underlying cause. Possible treatment options include:

  • medicated creams, lotions or ointments
  • oral or topical steroids
  • antihistamines

Itchy skin can occur as a side effect of some cancer treatments, including:

A person may also develop itchy skin as a side effect of medications they take alongside primary cancer treatments. These medications may include:

A person should seek advice from a healthcare professional if they experience itching that lasts longer than 2 weeks, particularly if the itching occurs all over the body and has no identifiable cause.

People should also contact a doctor if they experience any of the following symptoms in addition to itchy skin:

Itchy skin, or pruritus, can have many causes, and most cases are relatively mild or transient. However, itchy skin can also occur as a symptom of certain types of cancer or as a side effect of certain cancer treatments.

Treatment for itchy skin may include medicated creams or lotions, oral or topical steroids, or antihistamines. The type of medication a doctor prescribes will largely depend on the cause of the itching.

Anyone who experiences itching for more than 2 weeks should contact a doctor. This is especially important if other symptoms are present, such as rashes, skin sores, or jaundice.

A doctor will work to diagnose the cause of the symptoms and determine appropriate treatments.

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