Human skin is sensitive to a wide range of stimuli and itching is just one such sensation. Itching of the legs is often due to the same reasons as itchy skin elsewhere on the body. However, the legs are often prone to itching due to various factors that may not be as much of a problem elsewhere on the body. Itchy legs is not an uncommon problem but in most instances it is not due to any skin disease and usually resolves on its own within minutes to hours.
When itchiness of the legs becomes a daily problem, presents with a rash or affects the quality of life then it need to be investigated further and treated medically if need be. Itching is a sensation just as temperature, pressure and even pain are sensations. Each serves a different purpose. The exact reason why itching occurs is not entirely clear but it is believed to be a mechanism by which a person will remove an offending agent through scratching before it can cause damage to the skin.
Dryness of the skin is among the most common causes of itchy legs. The skin is more prone to drying among people who live in dry and windy climates, particularly if the legs are not covered by clothing when outdoors. Sun can also be a contributing factor. The long and narrow shape of the legs compared to the torso allows for movement of air around it and therefore even greater drying.
- Moisturize the legs especially after bathing.
- Avoid using antibacterial soaps which tend to dry the skin further.
- Dry skin is sometimes directly linked to hydration so drinking water could be helpful.
Hygiene is an important factor that is not always considered when itchy skin is a problem. Sweat, dead skin cells and environmental dust can be irritants to the skin if not removed on a regular basis. It can even allow for the natural skin bacteria and fungi to then infect the skin.
- Daily bathing with clean water is important.
- A mild soap should be used to help remove surface dirt.
- Avoid very hot water as it can exacerbate itching.
Fungal infections of the skin are usually caused by a specific type of fungi known as dermatophytes. These fungi have enzymes that can digest skin protein. The infection is usually superficial and typically cause a red ring-shaped rash. It is therefore commonly referred to as ringworm of the skin but does not involve a parasitic worm.
- Topical antifungal applications are often sufficient to eradicate the fungus.
- Oral antifungal agents may be necessary for persistent fungal infections.
- Corticosteroids may be used in the short term for severe symptoms.
Contact dermatitis arises when certain substances make contact with the skin and irritate it or trigger an allergic reaction in the skin. These substances can vary from water and sweat to certain textiles, organic material and even skin applications. Irritant contact dermatitis can affect any person while allergic contact dermatitis affect people with an immune hypersensitivity.
- Antihistamines can reduce the itching and allergic reaction.
- Corticosteroids reduce the inflammation.
- Avoiding the trigger is the best option for long term management.
Stasis Venous Dermatitis
Stasis venous dermatitis is a skin condition that arises when the blood circulation in the affected area is impaired. It is due to weakness of the leg veins or a blood clot (deep vein thrombosis) that impedes the return of blood to the heart. As a result the blood pools in the legs. It is mainly seen in older adults. The area can become infected and ulcers may form in the area.
- Avoid standing or sitting for long periods and use compression stockings.
- Surgery for removal of spider veins may help to some degree.
- Corticosteroids may be used to reduce the inflammation and antibiotics may be needed to treat the infection.
Folliculitis is the infection of the hair follicles which can can present with itching. It is often caused by Staphylococcus aureus, a species of bacteria that is also commonly found on the skin surface but other bacteria and fungi may also cause folliculitis. The infection is usually not serious and in many cause it can resolve on its own without treatment. However,it often tends to recur.
- Antifungal or antibacterial creams and ointments to eradicate the microbes.
- Corticosteroids to reduce the inflammation in the follicles.
- Oral antibiotics are only needed for severe infections.
Urticaria or hives is a condition where a red rash or welts appears on the skin. The exact cause is unclear but the skin suddenly releases large amounts of histamines which causes localized inflammation similar to an allergic reaction. It can sometimes last for more than 6 weeks in which case it is considered to be chronic. Hives tends to recur weeks, months or years later even if it completely resolves.
- Antihistamines are usually the main medication used for urticaria.
- Histamine blockers may be used when antihistamines are not effective.
- Corticosteroid creams may be used to reduce the skin inflammation.
Psoriasis is a chronic skin disease where there is widespread inflammation of the skin along with silvery-white patches on thickened skin. The condition appears to be autoimmune in nature where skin cells grow rapidly but do not slough off as would normally occur. It is sometimes associated with arthritis (psoriatic arthritis) where there is joint pain and stiffening.
- Immune-modulating agents and immune-suppressing drugs.
- Corticosteroids reduce inflammation in the skin.
- Vitamin D analogues and retinoids to reduce the skin cell growth.
- Salicylic acid topical applications to slough off skin cells.
Sunburn occurs when the skin becomes inflamed due to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. The sun is often the main source of UV light but sunburn can even occur with exposure to tanning beds and arc lamps. Any sun-exposed area of the body may be affected but it is also dependent on the intensity of the light source and duration of exposure. Most of the time sunburn does not require medical treatment.