Pruritus (Itching)

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed: August 01, 2022

What is it?

Pruritus is itching. Itching is a side effect of some cancers and of some treatments. Some things that can cause itching are:

  • The type of cancer: Cancers that can cause itching are Non-Hodgkin's and Hodgkin's lymphomas, liver, breast, prostate, lung, colorectal, and gynecological cancers.
  • Some chemotherapy drugs: You can have skin reactions (like dryness, hives, or rashes), or you might have short-term itchiness during an injection.
  • Hormone therapy, biological therapy agents, and pain medication.
  • Radiation therapy can cause dryness and a sunburn-like burn in the treated area. This reaction can cause itchiness.
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes) causes itching because of the buildup of bile salts in the tissues.
  • Infections or allergic reactions may cause itchiness.

How is it treated?

You may be given skin care instructions to lessen the itch. Skincare can also prevent infection due to scratching. Itchiness can be treated by finding the cause.

Some way to lessen itching may be to:

  • Limit baths and use the shower instead. Avoid hot water when washing or bathing, wash only with gentle, soap-free cleansers.
  • After washing, gently dry your skin. Pat the area dry (don't rub) with a soft towel.
  • Use lotions and moisturizers daily if your care team says it is okay to do so. Choose gentle lotions without perfumes or dyes.
  • Wear natural fibers like cotton or linen clothing. Choose loose clothing that doesn't rub against your skin.
  • Drink 6-8 eight-ounce glasses of non-alcoholic fluids each day.
  • Keep your fingernails short to prevent scratching yourself.
  • If you are feeling itchy, placing lotion or a cool washcloth on the area may lessen the urge to scratch.

Medications may be prescribed to help with the itchiness. Antihistamines, sedatives, and antidepressants are medications that can help with itchiness.

When should I contact my care team?

If itching is stopping you from sleeping or is not managed by skin care, contact your care provider. If itching gets worse or you see signs of infection, contact your care provider.


Ensslin CJ, Rosen AC, Wu S, Lacouture ME. Pruritus in patients treated with targeted cancer therapies: systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2013;69(5):708-20.

Fischer A, Rosen AC, Ensslin CJ, Wu S, Lacouture ME. Pruritus to anticancer agents targeting the EGFR, BRAF, and CTLA-4. Dermatologic therapy. 2013;26(2):135-48.

Mayo Clinic. Itchy skin (pruritus) - Symptoms and causes. 2018.

Santini D, Vincenzi B, Guida FM, Imperatori M, Schiavon G, Venditti O, et al. Aprepitant for management of severe pruritus related to biological cancer treatments: a pilot study. The Lancet Oncology. 2012;13(10):1020-4.