What Causes Itchy Armpits?
The combination of warmth, dampness, and the presence of body hair makes your armpits especially prone to itching.
Usually, it’s the result of something simple like an allergy to a product (deodorant or shaving cream). But infected hair follicles (folliculitis) and a fungus or yeast overgrowth can also cause an infection and irritation.
Luckily, treating itchy armpits is usually as simple as switching soaps or using an over-the-counter antifungal treatment. For more severe cases, your doctor can prescribe you medications to make the itching stop.
1. Contact dermatitis
A common misconception is that armpit itchy rashes (lumps and bumps) are from a food allergy. It is very rare for food allergies to present as itchy armpit rashes. It could be an allergy to a product that your skin is in contact with since the armpit skin is so sensitive. It can even be from something you have been using for years. —Dr. Lauren Levy
- Armpit redness
- Armpit itch
- Scaly red or pink bumps
Contact dermatitis is when the skin becomes irritated and inflamed after contact with an allergen or an irritant. There are two types of contact dermatitis—allergic or irritant.
With allergic contact dermatitis, your skin becomes red and itchy after contact with a substance that you are allergic to. It could be a fragrance from body wash, soap, or detergent, or even metal from a razor.
With irritant contact dermatitis, red and itchy armpits develop because something irritates the skin. Things that can irritate the armpits include sweat, a rubber strap from clothing, or a product that contains too much alcohol for the sensitive skin of the armpit.
Treatment might require topical steroids to reduce the inflammation or oral antihistamines like Benadryl to help with itch.
It’s important to try to figure out what is causing the reaction and avoid using the product again. A doctor can do patch testing. During this procedure, various allergens are placed on your back and you are monitored for a reaction, which indicates you are allergic to the substance.
Keep in mind that the armpit skin is very sensitive. Using mild and fragrance-free products and washing the area thoroughly after sweating can help prevent irritant contact dermatitis.
- Pink or red bumps around hair follicles
- Itch or pain
- Pus-filled bumps
Folliculitis is inflammation of the hair follicle. It occurs when bacteria (usually staphylococcus aureus) gets into the hair follicle, causing inflammation and pus. The bacteria enters through open skin and can even live on an old razor. It can be very itchy and/or painful.
Many times folliculitis will go away on its own. For more severe cases, your doctor may give you topical or oral antibiotics. Be sure to throw away your razor blade if you have folliculitis. Changing your razor blade often can also help prevent folliculitis.
3. Ingrown hairs
If you suffer from ingrown hairs, laser hair removal may be a cure. This will prevent the hair from growing in the follicle and causing the reaction that causes the itchy red bumps. —Dr. Levy
- Pink or red bumps around hair follicles
- Itch or pain
- A hair in the center of the bump curled under the skin
Ingrown hairs occur when the hair itself grows back into the skin. The body views it as a foreign object and reacts by sending inflammatory cells to the hair. This causes a red or pink bump around the hair, which can be very itchy and/or painful. Often they occur in people who have thicker or coarse hair.
Treatment for ingrown hairs is to stop shaving for several days. Your doctor may prescribe a topical steroid lotion to calm inflammation or perform a quick in-office procedure to clip the hairs out of the bump, which prevents further inflammation.
Always shave in the direction of hair growth and use a new razor blade each time you shave if you are prone to ingrown hairs.
- Itchy red or pink rash
- Rash with well-defined border
- Scaly rash
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack its own healthy skin cells. It causes thickened and scaly red skin that is very itchy. Psoriasis is common on the scalp, knees, and elbows, but often occurs in the armpits. Psoriasis in the armpits is referred to as inverse psoriasis.
Treatment involves different combinations of topical medications, oral medications, and phototherapy with natural or artificial light. Lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, quitting smoking, and managing stress, are usually very helpful.
5. Yeast infection (Candida)
- Red patch of skin with surrounding small red bumps
- Armpit itch
- Foul odor
Candida is a yeast that grows in warm and moist environments like the armpit. Being overweight, having diabetes, or recent use of antibiotics can put you at risk for this skin infection. A yeast infection is a skin condition that looks like a bright red patch surrounded by smaller red bumps (satellitosis). It is very itchy and may smell bad.
Yeast infections are treated with antifungal medications. They can be oral (fluconazole) or topical (clotrimazole or ketoconazole). If you have diabetes, controlling your blood sugar can help prevent yeast infection from coming back.
6. Tinea corporis (ringworm)
- Round ring-like pink or red rash
- A scaly border
- Armpit itch
Tinea corporis (ringworm) is caused by a dermatophyte—a type of fungus that invades the skin. Touching the fungus on another person or objects that have been contaminated like towels or bed linens can also spread ringworm. Dogs and cats can carry it and transfer it to humans as well. The fungus causes a red or pink ring-like rash, with a scale on the edge of the ring.
Ringworm is treated with a topical antifungal medication (terbinafine) you apply to your skin. In severe cases, oral terbinafine may be necessary.
Check your pets for the fungus if you get repeated infections. Throw out your razor as the fungus can live on the blade. Don’t share personal hygiene items with others.
Other possible causes
A number of conditions may also cause itchy armpits, though these are either rare or armpit itch is not usually the defining symptom.
- Body lice
- Reaction to medication (i.e., drug rash)
- Erythrasma—a rare bacterial infection of the skin
- Hailey-Hailey disease
- Lichen planus
- Fox fordyce disease
When to call the doctor
The most common causes of armpit itch are treatable at home. But if at-home relief doesn’t work, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. Also, contact your doctor if you experience:
- Worsening rash
- Rash spreading to the rest of the body
- Itch interfering with sleep
- Swollen glands (lymph nodes) in the armpits
Should I go to the ER for itchy armpits?
You should go to the emergency department if you have any of these signs of a more serious problem:
- Severe pain in the armpits
- Bleeding from the skin that does not stop with direct pressure
Stopping shaving for several days can really help with symptoms. The shaving cream and metal razor blade can be very irritating when there is a rash there. —Dr. Levy
- Switch deodorant, soap, or laundry detergent if you think the itch is from an allergic reaction.
- Use fragrance-free products.
- Stop shaving until the rash goes away.
- Change your razor blade.
- Bathe less frequently. Frequent bathing can dry the skin or expose it to irritants.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) hydrocortisone cream to treat contact dermatitis.
- OTC antifungal or anti yeast cream to treat fungal infection or candida.
- OTC antihistamines like Benadryl to relieve itch.
Other treatment options
Your doctor might prescribe:
- Oral antifungal medications to treat more severe fungal or yeast infection.
- Oral antibiotics for folliculitis caused by staphylococcus or folliculitis that is not resolving on its own.
- Topical steroids for contact dermatitis or psoriasis.
- Phototherapy for psoriasis.
- Oral or injectable immunosuppressant medication for severe psoriasis.
Dr. Levy is a board certified dermatologist specializing in medical derm with expertise in acne, rosacea, skin cancer, psoriasis, and skin manifestations of rheumatologic disease. Her undergraduate education was completed at the University of Pennsylvania where she graduated summa cum laude and was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honors society. She graduated with a distinction in research from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and was inducted into the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. During medical school, she received a one year Doris Duke Clinical Research Fellowship Award. During that time, she investigated imaging techniques for early diagnosis of head and neck cancer. Her training continued with a medical internship at Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center followed by dermatology residency in the Department of Dermatology at Yale University, one of the most prestigious dermatology departments in the country. Following her residency, she worked as a clinical Instructor at Yale School of Medicine. She currently sees patients in New York City and Westport Connecticut and is a Clinical Instructor in the Department of Dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Dr. Levy is well published in the field of dermatology having written articles on atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, acne, and skin manifestations of systemic disease. She is an avid lecturer and has been invited to lecture at state wide dermatology meetings. She is the editor of a board review Dermatology textbook.