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Home > Patients & Visitors > Health Library > Pruritus (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Pruritus is an itchy feeling that makes you want to scratch your skin. It may occur without a rash or skin lesions. It's a symptom of a condition or disease. Pruritus can be caused by cancer, cancer treatments, and conditions related to cancer. It also may be caused by an infection, dry skin, reaction to a drug, or a disease or condition that is not cancer.
The skin is the largest organ of the body. The most important job of skin is to protect against heat, sunlight, injury, and infection. The skin is also important to self-image and your ability to touch and be touched.
Pruritus can be very uncomfortable and scratching may cause breaks in the skin, bleeding, and infection. If your skin feels itchy, let your doctor know so it can be treated and relieved.
Certain cancers and blood disorders are likely to cause pruritus.
These include the following:
Certain cancer treatments may cause pruritus.
Cancer treatments that may cause pruritus include the following:
When chemotherapy causes pruritus, it may be a sign that you are sensitive to the drugs being used. Anticancer drugs that commonly cause itching include the following:
The way you react depends on the drug, the dose, and whether you are allergic to it. Itching caused when drugs are given by infusion usually occurs only near the place where the needle was inserted and often stops on its own 30 to 90 minutes after the infusion ends. It's important to report itching caused by chemotherapy to your doctor because your reactions can get worse each time the same drug is used.
Radiation can kill skin cells and cause dryness, burning, and itching as the skin peels off. Broken skin may become infected by scratching. If your skin is severely damaged, radiation treatments may have to be stopped for a while to give your skin time to heal. This can affect how well your cancer treatment works. Your doctor will try to keep your skin healthy so you can continue treatment. Some types of radiation cause fewer side effects than others.
Radiation therapy and chemotherapy together
The side effects of radiation therapy and chemotherapy given together can be more severe than the side effects when each is given alone.
Several biologic therapy drugs may cause itching. This is most common with drugs called interferons.
Bone marrow transplant
Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) can occur after a bone marrow transplant. In some patients, GVHD may cause dry skin and an itchy rash. In severe cases, it can progress to scleroderma, which is a hardening and thickening of the skin. Muscles and tendons can also harden and make joints stiff. This complication of scleroderma is called contracture.
Drugs for supportive care
Some of the drugs used to prevent or treat cancer symptoms may cause pruritus, including the following:
Pruritus can be a symptom of infection.
Itching around the anus or vulva might be caused by infections with Trichomonas or fungi, nearby tumors, hemorrhoids, tears in the anus, or fluids draining from wounds.
Finding the cause of the itching is the first step in relieving pruritus.
Since pruritus is a symptom of a disease or condition, finding and treating the cause is the first step in bringing you relief.
A physical exam and a blood test are done to assess pruritus.
The following tests and procedures may be done to find the problem that is causing the itching:
A history of your health habits and past illnesses and treatments will also be taken, including the following information:
Treatment of pruritus in cancer patients involves learning what the triggers are and taking steps to avoid them.
It is important for you and for caregivers to know what triggers itching, such as dry skin or hot baths, so you can take steps to prevent it. You may need more than one type of treatment to relieve or prevent pruritus, protect your skin, and keep you comfortable.
Self-care, drugs, and comfort measures may all be used to treat pruritus.
Self-care includes avoiding pruritus triggers and taking good care of your skin:
Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic if your pruritus is caused by an infection. You may also be given an oral antihistamine to relieve itching, with a larger dose at bedtime to help you sleep. For pruritus that is not related to radiation, you may use a mild corticosteroid on your skin, to relieve itching. Corticosteroids should not be used if the cause of pruritus is unknown.
Other drugs that may be used if other treatments do not work to control pruritus include sedatives and antidepressants. Antidepressants can have strong antihistamine and antipruritic effects.
Talk with your doctor about medicines you take that may be causing pruritus, such as opioids, morphine, or antibiotics. Changing to a different drug may stop the itching.
Comfort measures and acupuncture
The following may help relieve itching:
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This summary was completely reformatted and some content was added.
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
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This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about the causes and treatment of pruritus. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
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Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board.
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A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
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National Cancer Institute: PDQ® Pruritus. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: http://cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/supportivecare/pruritus/Patient. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>.
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Last Revised: 2014-02-05
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