Are you feeling itchy or tingling all over the body? You may be experiencing a skin-related issue like dermatitis or eczema, an allergic reaction from a certain food or plant, or you may be having a symptom of anxiety or depression. Unexplained itching all over the body can also be caused by kidney disease or scabies. Read below for more causes and how to treat itching or tingling all over.
Tingling or itching all over explained
Feeling itchy or tingling all over can be both an annoying and complicated symptom. It is important to follow-up these symptoms because itchy or tingly skin can be associated with serious underlying medical conditions as well as complex psychiatric conditions.
Common characteristics of feeling itchy all over
Pruritus is the medical term for itching. It is most often associated with dermatologic conditions, but it can also be a sign of systemic disease. The following are the most common ways to describe this condition. You may experience:
- Stinging or burning
- Change in skin texture
- Bumps or blisters
- Skin flaking
- Skin dryness
How to describe the feeling of something crawling on the skin
Formication is the medical term for a sensation of something (usually small insects) crawling on or under the skin. Often formication is associated with no obvious physical cause or external trigger. It is a fairly common occurrence — many people can remember a time where they wildly swatted or scratched at such a sensation only to find no bug, insect or bite in sight. Characteristics include:
- Pruritus (without rash)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Depression/depressed mood
If periodic or occasional, formication can be a natural sensory occurrence that quickly resolves without much effort or thought; however, when such sensations become chronic or incessant, medical attention may be required.
Common accompanying symptoms
Individuals who experience chronic symptoms of pruritus or formication may go on to develop symptoms such as:
- Abrasions or lesions from excessive scratching
- Scarring or ulceration
- Signs of infection (pus, skin breakdown, fever)
The excessive scratching that often accompanies either condition is also an important symptom. Though scratching can be helpful in relieving itching or tingling, it only offers temporary relief. Scratching can result in breaks in the skin that can lead to bleeding or infection, further exacerbating the issue.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above, seek medical attention. Pruritus, formication, and the associated symptoms often require the help of a multidimensional medical team including psychiatrists, dermatologists, and general medicine doctors.
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What causes tingling or itching all over?
Formication is a type of paresthesia. Paresthesias are dermal sensations and include sensations such as prickling, tingling, or numbness — sensations many define as “pins and needles". These sensations are usually caused by transient disruption or pressure on the nerves in the affected area; for example, sitting with the legs crossed for too long can easily produce such sensations. However, when symptoms become chronic in nature, the causes become more nuanced.
Pruritus is not as easily explained. It is thought to be caused by irritation or stimulation of cells and receptors on the skin mostly related to nerves. Multiple conditions can stimulate these nerve cells and cause itching.
Sensations of itching or tingling all over are most commonly caused by dermatologic conditions. Many dermatologic conditions such as eczema, hives, psoriasis and a variety of other illnesses that specifically affect the skin and its layers can result generalized, diffuse itching. Often, such conditions are also associated with symptoms such as redness, blisters or flaking. On the other hand, skin that is simply dry due to old age or temperature changes can also result in very itchy skin.
Pruritus or paresthesia is usually a symptom of an underlying systemic condition.
- Neurologic: Paresthesia can be caused by disorders affecting the central nervous system, such as strokes and multiple sclerosis. Neurologic conditions that put pressure on the nerves, such as a tumor, can also cause paresthesia. Nerve entrapment syndromes, for example, carpal tunnel syndrome, can damage peripheral nerves and cause paresthesia that is also associated with pain.
- Metabolic: There are many systemic, metabolic conditions that can result in damage to the nerves of the body. These conditions affect the way that the nerve sends and receives signals from the brain and spinal cord and disrupts proper sensory function. Conditions such as diabetes, thyroid disease, and vitamin deficiencies often result in paresthesia.
- Systemic: Systemic conditions that affect multiple organ systems such as liver disease, kidney disease, and cancer can result in generalized pruritus.
Since formication does not have an obvious physical cause, many people who suffer from chronic formication often have a psychiatric etiology contributing to their symptoms. A psychiatric disorder is that relating to mental illness.
- Delusions: Some people may suffer from delusional infestations in which they have the fixed, false belief (delusion) that they are infected by parasites, worms, mites, bacteria, fibers or other living organisms despite no evidence of an infection or infestation.
- Hallucinations: Some people may suffer from the hallucination (experience of something not there) of bugs or insects crawling on or under the skin. Such individuals may see the bugs on their skin when there is nothing actually there.
- Toxins: Substance abuse can often cause sensations of crawling on the head and under the skin. Chronic alcohol use and withdrawal and long-term cocaine and amphetamine abuse are common precipitants of these symptoms — the term “cocaine bugs” is heavily described in the literature.
There are many environmental causes that can trigger full body sensations of itching or tingling all over.
- Parasites: Small, parasitic insects such as lice that feed on their host's blood and propagate by personal contact are a very common cause of such symptoms. They can inhabit the head, body, and even pubic area and cause sensations of tickling or movement in addition to intense itching.
- Medication: Certain prescription drugs, corticosteroids and some antibiotics, for example, may induce pruritus, formication, and associated symptoms.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Irritant contact dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis means a skin reaction that is caused by directly touching an irritating substance, and not by an infectious agent such as a bacteria or virus.
Common causes are soap, bleach, cleaning agents, chemicals, and even water. Almost any substance can cause it with prolonged exposure. Contact dermatitis is not contagious.
Anyone who works with an irritating substance can contract the condition. Mechanics, beauticians, housekeepers, restaurant workers, and health care providers are all susceptible.
Symptoms include skin that feels swollen, stiff, and dry, and becomes cracked and blistered with painful open sores.
A medical provider can give the best advice on how to heal the skin and avoid further irritation. Self-treatment can make the problem worse if the wrong creams or ointments are used.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, to find out what substances the patient comes into contact with, and through physical examination of the damaged skin.
Treatment involves avoiding the irritating substance if possible. Otherwise, the person can use petroleum jelly on the hands underneath cotton and then rubber gloves.
Top Symptoms: rash with well-defined border, itchy rash, red or pink, rough patch of skin, painful rash, red rash
Symptoms that always occur with irritant contact dermatitis: rash with well-defined border
Symptoms that never occur with irritant contact dermatitis: fever, black-colored skin changes, brown-colored skin changes, blue-colored skin changes
Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is a non-contagious chronic skin condition that produces an itchy rash. It is caused by a genetic condition that affects the skin's ability to protect itself from bacteria and allergens. The most susceptible are those with a family hi..
Chronic kidney disease is long-term damage to the kidneys, the organs responsible for producing urine. Causes of chronic kidney disease include diabetes, hypertension, kidney infections, and inflammatory diseases, medications or toxins, inherited kidney diseases, and pre..
Chronic hepatitis c
Chronic hepatitis C is a liver inflammation caused by Hepacivirus C.
If someone is infected with hepatitis C and gets the acute form of the disease, there is about a 50% chance of the disease becoming chronic. This means that the virus remains in the body after the acute, short-term disease is over, and may or may not cause further illness.
Some patients have no symptoms of chronic hepatitis C until years later, when liver damage has developed and the signs of cirrhosis (scarring) begin to appear. Hepatitis C can also lead to liver cancer.
Diagnosis is made through blood tests.
Treatment for chronic hepatitis C involves taking medications prescribed by the physician; avoiding alcohol; and using no supplements or prescription medications without a doctor's clearance. In some cases, a liver transplant will be needed to save the patient's life.
The best prevention is to never share needles, toothbrushes, or other personal care items, and to always practice safe sex. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, nausea, muscle aches, loss of appetite, joint pain
Symptoms that never occur with chronic hepatitis c: pain in the lower right abdomen, pain in the lower left abdomen, pain in the upper left abdomen, pain around the belly button
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Hives, or urticaria, are flat red welts that can appear anywhere on the skin and usually itch. Hives often occur as an allergic reaction to something eaten or something that has contacted the skin. Foods, medicines, and plants are common causes, but sun exposure, stress, infections, and autoimmune diseases have also been...
Psoriasis causes an overgrowth of surface skin cells, creating a red, scaly, itchy, and painful rash.
It is believed to be an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack its own healthy skin cells. It may be genetic in origin but triggered by anything that further strains the immune system, such as infections, skin injury, alcohol consumption, obesity, smoking, and stress.
Symptoms may come and go in cycles lasting weeks or months. They include red patches of thickened skin, sometimes with gray-white scales; dry, cracked, bleeding skin; stiff and swollen joints; and thickened, misshapen nails.
It is important to see a medical provider for care, because psoriasis can interfere with quality of life. It is associated with higher risk of arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions.
Treatment involves different combinations of topical medications, oral medications, and phototherapy with natural or artificial light. Lifestyle changes such as improved diet, quitting smoking, and managing stress are very helpful in many cases.
Top Symptoms: itchy rash, red or pink, rough patch of skin, rash with well-defined border, painful rash, scaly rash
Symptoms that never occur with psoriasis: fever, black-colored skin changes, brown-colored skin changes, blue-colored skin changes
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Anyone can develop head lice if they have the parasite Pediculus humanus capitis living on their scalp. Head lice is a very common condition. It affects people worldwide, of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and is predominantly seen in children. Symptoms include scalp itchiness, visible marks from itching, and ..
The thyroid is a small, bow-tie shaped gland in your neck. Its main job is to produce thyroid hormone (known as T3 or T4), which serves a wide array of functions throughout the body.
When too much thyroid hormone is released, the body’s metabolism gets ramped up, causing symptoms ..
Scabies is a rash caused by the microscopic human itch mite. It burrows into the top layer of skin to feed and causes severe itching and irritation.
The mite spreads through direct contact or through infested bedding or furniture. It can infect anyone, though most susceptible are:
- Sexually active young adults.
- Anyone with a weakened immune system.
- Patients in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Symptoms include intense itching, especially at night, and a rash of tiny red bumps. Scratching may cause the rash to form sores, scales, or crusts. The rash most often forms between the fingers, in the folds of the wrists and elbows, and any place normally covered by clothing.
It is important to get treatment because the scratching can cause an infection in the skin. In children, mites can cover nearly the entire body.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and skin test.
Treatment involves a prescription for skin cream. Everyone who has come into contact with the affected person must be treated, even if they show no symptoms.
Top Symptoms: vaginal itch or burning, vulvovaginal redness, feeling itchy or tingling all over, butt itch, elbow itch
Urgency: Primary care doctor
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How to relieve itching all over
Treatment for diffuse itching or tingling and its associated symptoms requires a thorough assessment of the patient’s situation including a thorough history, drug screen, and physical examination.
After being properly diagnosed, your doctor may suggest some home remedies, such as soak and smear, to help alleviate symptoms. Soak and smear involves sitting (soaking) in a bath of plain water for 20 minutes as directed, then, without drying the skin, immediately applying (smearing) the skin with an over-the-counter or prescribed ointment or moisturizer. This is an inexpensive, effective strategy often used to treat generalized pruritus.
When to see a doctor
You should not treat your symptoms at home without proper assessment by a healthcare professional. The key in treating these symptoms is to find the root cause, whether that be dermatologic, systemic or psychiatric. The root cause of the symptoms will dictate the appropriate treatment.
- Dermatologic: If your itching is due to a rash or skin disorder such as eczema or dermatitis, corticosteroids are helpful given their anti-inflammatory effect in addition to their immunosuppressive role. Your physician may also try antihistamines or light therapy.
- Systemic: Since the medical causes of pruritus can be varied, your doctor will run the appropriate diagnostic tests in order to uncover the root cause of your symptoms and begin appropriate treatment.
- Psychiatric: Treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), counseling, and antidepressant or antipsychotic drugs are the principal modalities used in treating psychiatric causes of formication. In addition, drug rehab programs to help patients stop abusing alcohol and cocaine may also be utilized as treatment.
- Environmental: Proper treatment of a parasitic infestation such as lice or scabies includes over-the-counter and prescription medications that specifically target parasites and kill them. It is also important to take preventative steps at home such as washing combs and brushes, not sharing personal belongings such as hats, scarves, and washing and decontaminated any used linens or bedding.
When it is an emergency
If your scratching becomes persistent to the point where you have open lesions or excessive bleeding, you should seek urgent medical attention. It is also important to seek urgent medical attention if you have signs of a serious infection, such as the leakage of pus from lesions, swelling, fever, nausea or vomiting.
Dry skin is a very common cause of pruritus that can be prevented with easy lifestyle changes and habits.
- Use skin lubricants often: Such as petroleum jelly or alcohol-free, hypoallergenic lotions twice a day
- Use a humidifier indoors: Especially during the wintertime.
- Choose comfortable, non-irritating clothing
FAQs about feeling itchy or tingling all over
What kinds of prescription drugs can cause formication?
Often it is not the drug itself that causes symptoms but rather withdrawal from the prescribed drug that results in feelings of itchiness or tingling all over. Withdrawal from drugs such as opioids (codeine, morphine), antidepressants (SSRIs), cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine can result in formication. Discuss with your doctor your prescribed drug and proper withdrawal.
What kinds of drugs can cause generalized pruritus?
There is a long list of drugs that can cause generalized pruritus with or without a rash, such as antifungal agents, antibiotics (vancomycin, rifampin), aspirin, nitrates (found in food preservatives as well as some medications), quinidine, and spinal narcotics.
What if I only feel itching all over after a shower?
You may be experiencing a condition known as “aquagenic pruritus.” This is a symptom associated with polycythemia vera, a blood cancer. Often patients will experience symptoms within 10 to 15 minutes after contact with water.
Is formication life-threatening?
The sensation is not dangerous in itself; however, these symptoms can have serious complications. For example, some people may scratch incessantly at the sensation causing lesions or breaks in the skin that may lead to infection.
Is the sensation contagious?
Generalized pruritus or paresthesia is only contagious in situations of parasite infestation. Lice and scabies are extremely contagious and easily transferred via body-to-body contact, body-to-infested material contact, etc. It is very important to get a lice diagnosis promptly in order to prevent spread.
Questions your doctor may ask about feeling itchy or tingling all over
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- What is your body mass?
- Any fever today or during the last week?
- Have you ever been diagnosed with diabetes?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
- Moses S. Pruritus. Am Fam Physician. 2003 Sep 15;68(6):1135-1142. AAFP Link
- Paresthesia Information Page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Updated June 14, 2018. NINDS Link
- Tivoli YA, Rubenstein RM. Pruritus: an updated look at an old problem. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2009;2(7):30-6. NCBI Link
- Hylwa SA, Bury JE, Davis MP, et al. Delusional Infestation, Including Delusions of Parasitosis. Arch Dermatol. 2011;147(9):1041-1045. JAMA Link
- Gutman AB, Kligman AM, Sciacca J. Soak and Smear: A Standard Technique Revisited. Arch Dermatol. 2005;141(12):1556-1559. JAMA Link