Pruritus (Itching)

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed:

What is it?

Pruritus is itching. Itching is a side effect of some cancers and of some treatments. Possible causes of itching:

  • The type of cancer: cancers that can cause itching include Non-Hodgkin's and Hodgkin's lymphomas, liver, breast, prostate, lung, colorectal, and gynecological cancers.
  • Certain chemotherapy drugs: this may be due to skin reactions (such as dryness, hives, or rashes) or may be a temporary itchiness during the injection.
  • Hormone therapy, biological therapy agents, and pain medication.
  • Radiation therapy can cause a skin reaction consisting of dryness and a sunburn-like burn in the treated area. This reaction can cause itchiness.
  • Jaundice causes itching due to the buildup of bile salts in the tissues.
  • Infections or allergic reactions may cause itchiness.

How is it managed?

When itching is an expected side effect of treatment, you may be given skin care instructions to minimize the itch and prevent infection due to scratching. Itchiness can be treated by identifying the cause.

Skin care to manage itching:

  • Limit baths, instead use showers, 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. Choose gentle lotions without perfumes or dyes. 
  • Wear natural fibers such as cotton or linen clothing and 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, applying lotion or a cool washcloth to the area may satisfy the urge to scratch.

Medications may be prescribed to manage itchiness. Antihistamines, sedatives or antidepressants are medications that have anti-itch properties.

When should I contact my care team?

If itching is stopping you from sleeping or is not controlled by skin-care measures, contact your care provider. If itching gets worse or you notice signs of infection, contact your care provider. 

References

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.

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