Most of us have experienced itching in the underarm region (also known as the armpit or the axilla) at some point of time. These are usually a temporary irritation that go away on their own, and do not indicate any serious underlying medical problem. However, there are times when a person may experience a persistent itch in the armpit region.
In cases where such persistent itching is accompanied by a lesion or rash in the underarm region, a medical examination is warranted in order to diagnose the exact cause and have the correct treatment prescribed. In some conditions, the itch in the underarm region may also be accompanied by itching in other regions of the body.
Causes of Itchy Armpits
There are a variety of causes for itchy armpits. The causes of itchy underarms range from lifestyle factors to skin diseases and serious medical conditions. Itching, by itself, is not a disease. It is a symptom caused by some other primary condition.
Temporary itching in the armpits that resolves on its own and is not recurrent, is not something to be worried about. In many cases of temporary itch in the underarm region, no specific cause is identifiable. On the other hand, certain diseases such as contact dermatitis and psoriasis can cause itching in many regions of the body, including the armpits.
Lack of personal hygiene
Our armpits are not barren skin areas. The underarm region is densely populated with hairs, sweat glands and sebaceous or oil glands. This area of the skin is also not properly ventilated due to the closed anatomical structure of this region as well as the restricted airflow caused by the clothes we wear. The underarm region, therefore, has a tendency to accumulate sweat, sebum and dead skin cells.
Application of deodorants and powders in the underarm region, aimed at preventing bad underarm odor, also irritate the skin in the armpits. Cleaning the underarms daily during bath is essential to prevent a buildup of sweat, dead cells, sebum, and other irritants in this area. Lack of regular bathing can lead to a buildup of the above mentioned substances, leading to irritation and itching of the skin in the armpits.
Conversely, using strong scented soaps, antibacterial soaps and vigorous scrubbing of the underarm region during bath can also irritate the skin and cause itching.
Read more on bad armpit odor.
Excessive sweating is technically referred to as hyperhidrosis. Sweating is a normal physiological function that plays an important role in the regulation of normal body temperature. An increase in sweating during conditions such as hot weather and physical exercise is normal.
Hyperhidrosis refers to sweating that is abnormally high, and beyond the level required for regulation of body temperature. Excessive sweating in the armpits can lead to bad odor and itching of the skin in this region. Armpits and back are among the most commonly affected sites in hyperhidrosis.
Injury in the armpit region
There are multiple different ways in which the underarm area may get injured. The skin in the armpit region is particularly susceptible to injuries. This is because the skin in the armpits overlies a triangle-shaped hollow that does not have a rigid underlying support structure. The hollow of the armpits is bordered by the muscles of the neighboring regions.
Due to the absence of a hard underlying support structure, a person is likely to apply extra pressure while scratching the underarm region and injuring it in the process. Vigorous washing of the underarm area can also cause injury to this region. The skin in the armpits may also get injured in the process of hair removal. Shaving or application of hot wax and hair removal creams in the underarm area can cause mechanical or chemical injury to the skin in this region.
Inflammation caused by injury may manifest as pain, tenderness, redness and swelling in the armpits. Itching may result from the inflammation.
Contact dermatitis is a common skin condition that can affect many areas of the body, including the armpits. Contact dermatitis is characterized by inflammation of the skin caused by contact with any of a variety of irritants or allergens. The substances that cause contact dermatitis are normally harmless, and do not affect everyone. Offending substances include soap, shampoo, water, perfumes, deodorants, and even sweat.
Only certain hypersensitive individuals have an adverse skin reaction to these substances, resulting in the display of signs and symptoms of contact dermatitis. The signs and symptoms of contact dermatitis include scaling, redness, itching and excessive dryness of the skin. Scratching in response to the itchy skin can worsen the condition. These signs and symptoms are usually reversible, and subside if further exposure to the offending allergen or irritant is prevented.
In addition to avoiding contact with the skin irritants, medications may also be required to treat severe cases of contact dermatitis. Medications used for treatment of contact dermatitis include antihistamines and topical corticosteroids.
Fungal infections of the skin usually result in itchiness. Candida albicans is a normal resident yeast on the human skin. Under healthy conditions, the growth of Candida albicans is kept in check. However, under conditions that lower the immunity (such as AIDS, diabetes, chemotherapy, and corticosteroid therapy), this yeast can overgrow.
The most commonly affected areas are the regions that are moist, warm and dark (such as the mouth and the vagina). In some cases, yeast infection can affect the skin of the armpits, the groin, and the areas under the breast. These areas are likely to be affected when there is recurrent chaffing or a break in the skin barrier. Scratching the skin that is affected by fungal infection may also cause bleeding.
Read more on armpit fungus.
Hidradenitis suppurativa refers to an inflammation of the scent glands (special types of sweat glands) that are responsible for the body’s odor. When these glands become clogged, secretions build up and cysts form. These cysts become infected by bacteria (especially Staphylococcus aureus).
Bursting of thes cysts results in release of yellowish or clear fluid and scarring of the skin. The cysts in Hidradenitis suppurativa appear in regions such as armpits, groin and the skin under the breasts. Treatment involves oral antibiotics, topical antimicrobial ointments, injections of anti-inflammatory drugs, and surgical drainage or excision of the cysts.
Itchy armpits may also be caused due to many other reasons, such as enlarged lymph nodes, senile pruritus, kidney diseases, liver diseases, heat rash, allergies, side-effects of drugs, intestinal or skin parasites, and cancer.