Winter 2014

Decoding the Itch

The cause of most scratching is harmless, dermatologist says

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Illustration: Ryan Snook

People worry when certain parts of their bodies start itching. That’s just the nature of things, and it’s understandable, Alan Rockoff, assistant clinical professor of dermatology, observed recently in Psychology Today.

An itch can be just an itch, or it may be something more. “Many times what bothers people is not the itch itself but what the itch might mean. Cancer, for instance,” Rockoff wrote. “If you scan the Internet, you’ll get the idea that a mole that itches can be trouble. Well, maybe it can, but I don’t remember the last time I saw an itchy mole that actually was trouble. I spend a lot of my days reassuring people that the itchy spot they’re worried about just got irritated or rubbed and doesn’t need to be taken off.”

New spots and freckles and all “those nasty barnacles we collect as we age” tend to make people especially uneasy, Rockoff says. Signs of change and maturation in the body naturally perturb the mind. “People troop in all the time complaining, ‘My back itches,’ ” the doctor relates. “[But] what they’re really wondering is, ‘What the devil is going on back there?’ For most of them, my answer is, ‘Not much. Forget about it.’

“My profession is good at asking certain questions about itch: Which diseases cause it, what caliber of nerve fibers carry itch impulses, what treatments blunt it. These are good questions, but often they’re not the most important ones—to the patient who itches.”

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