Why Does Scratching Make Itching Worse?

iStock/champja
iStock/champja

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.

Pioneering Heart Surgeon René Favaloro Is Being Honored With a Google Doodle

Dr. René Favaloro (left) pictured with colleague Dr. Mason Sones.
Dr. René Favaloro (left) pictured with colleague Dr. Mason Sones.
The Cleveland Clinic Center for Medical Art & Photography, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Argentinian heart surgeon René Favaloro is the subject of today’s Google Doodle, which features a sketched portrait of the doctor along with an anatomical heart and several medical tools, The Independent reports.

The renowned doctor was born on this day in 1923 in La Plata, the capital of Argentina’s Buenos Aires province, and pursued a degree in medicine at La Plata University. After 12 years as a doctor in La Pampa, where he established the area’s first mobile blood bank, trained nurses, and built his own operating room, Favaloro relocated to the U.S. to specialize in thoracic surgery at the Cleveland Clinic.

In 1967, Favaloro performed coronary bypass surgery on a 51-year-old woman whose right coronary artery was blocked, restricting blood flow to her heart. Coronary bypass surgery involves taking a healthy vein from elsewhere in the body (in this case, Favaloro borrowed from the patient’s leg, but you can also use a vein from the arm or chest), and using it to channel the blood from the artery to the heart, bypassing the blockage. According to the Mayo Clinic, it doesn’t cure whatever heart disease that caused the blocked artery, but it can relieve symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath, and it gives patients time to make other lifestyle changes to further manage their disease.

Favaloro wasn’t keen on being called the “father” of coronary bypass surgery, but his work brought the procedure to the forefront of the clinical field. He moved back to Argentina in 1971 and launched the Favaloro Foundation to train surgeons and treat a variety of patients from diverse economic backgrounds.

Favaloro died by suicide on July 29, 2000, at the age of 77, by a gunshot wound to the chest. His wife had died several years prior, and his foundation had fallen deeply into debt, which Argentinian hospitals and medical centers declined to help pay, The New York Times reported at the time.

“As a surgeon, Dr. Favaloro will be remembered for his ingenuity and imagination,” his colleague Dr. Denton A. Cooley wrote in a tribute shortly after Favaloro’s death. “But as a man ... he will be remembered for his compassion and selflessness.” Today would have been his 96th birthday.

[h/t The Independent]

A Simple Way to Cure Brain Freeze Quickly

vitapix/iStock via Getty Images
vitapix/iStock via Getty Images

As one of life’s simple pleasures, ice cream should not have the capacity to cause spontaneous and agonizing pain immediately after ingestion. Yet ice cream and other extremely cold food frequently catches us off-guard by inciting what is known as “brain freeze” or “ice cream headache.” Fortunately, there’s a way to alleviate this harsh side effect.

According to Johns Hopkins University, a bout of radiating pain in your head after eating cold food is known as cold neuralgia or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. It’s likely caused by your body entering survival mode when it detects a freezing temperature on the palate (roof) of the mouth: our system constricts blood vessels in the palate to preserve our core temperature. When they rapidly open back up, a pain signal is sent to the brain via the trigeminal nerve. Since that nerve leads directly to the midface and forehead, your face bears the brunt of the referred pain from the mouth.

A brain freeze typically lasts less than five minutes. But when your head is throbbing, that can feel like forever. To minimize the pain, the best strategy is to warm the palate up. You can do this by pressing your tongue or a thumb against the roof of your mouth, by drinking a warm liquid, or both. Covering your face and breathing into your hands can also warm the air inside your mouth that was chilled by the ice cream.

If you want to take preventive measures, avoid gulping cold drinks and take smaller bites. Holding the ice cream in your mouth to warm it before swallowing can also reduce the potential for a painful end to your cone or slushy drink.

[h/t Johns Hopkins Medicine]

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