It feels like a biological blooper: A persistent itch is made worse by scratching, the one thing that provides instantaneous relief. Evolutionary biologists have proposed that the relationship between scratching and itching developed when disease-carrying parasites and insects bit humans, causing itching skin; scratching brushed the bugs away. Anyone suffering from a mosquito bite can understand that connection.
There’s no simple answer for why skin that has just been scratched becomes even itchier, but researchers have identified some mechanisms behind the irritating phenomenon.
Why Scratching an Itch Doesn't Help
Our sensory neurons are constantly bombarded with stimuli, so some sensations take precedence over others. Sensory signals of one type can be overridden by signals of other types if the latter are strong enough. The overridden signals don’t even reach the brain—they’re stopped by specific neurons in the spinal cord. In this way, the pain caused by scratching is often sufficient to drown out the itch—but only temporarily.
Cells in the brain stem produce the neurotransmitter serotonin, which quells pain. But according to Zhou-Feng Chen, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study of Itch at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, serotonin has an additional function. His group has found that as the serotonin spreads through the spinal cord, it can activate neurons that transmit itch signals to the brain, compelling us to scratch even more.
Each time we scratch, we put this cycle in motion. The increasing amount of serotonin may even make us scratch harder, until the urge to scratch becomes detached from any itch trigger on the skin. “It’s to try to suppress the itchy sensation, which occurs in your brain,” Chen tells Mental Floss. By this mechanism, itches can even become chronic.
Serotonin signaling isn’t the only way scratching worsens an itch; harm to the skin caused by scratching is another contributor. “When the skin barrier is irritated or further damaged, it releases certain pro-inflammatory factors that can directly aggravate itch by stimulating the sensory nerve fibers,” Brian Kim, M.D., co-director of the Center for the Study of Itch, tells Mental Floss. Those factors can also activate your immune system, and some types of immune cells around the affected area may produce chemicals that induce itch.
The very idea of scratching can also be a trigger. Chen’s research group reported last year that mice appear susceptible to scratching when they see other mice do the same. “Itching is actually contagious between people, between animals, and in your body itself,” Chen says. “When you scratch one place, you quickly want to scratch another area.” Scratching doesn’t just make itch more intense—it sometimes also causes the sensation to spread.
Relief for Itching
In mild cases, it may be possible to resist scratching through sheer force of will—but that’s not usually a long-term solution.
“I always feel bad because a lot of people say to patients, ‘Don’t scratch, don’t scratch,’ but that’s very challenging,” Kim tells Mental Floss. He says he tries to determine the cause of a person’s itchiness first. If it’s caused by an underlying medical problem, such as infestation with lice or liver disease, managing that issue may resolve the itch. Even if the underlying problem can’t be cured, there are medications that can calm itch in certain circumstances, such as antihistamines for allergy-induced itch and topical corticosteroids for itch caused by certain skin conditions, including eczema.
For now, drugs like these may be our best weapons against itching. “I think itch is often viewed as quirky, not serious, or embarrassing,” Kim says, which explains why there’s little research on itch despite its impact on our lives. Unfortunately, that coveted scratch in a bottle remains out of reach.