Is there a spot in your leg that you just can’t stop scratching? Or do you feel itchy all over your legs? If you answer yes to either question, you know how distressing it can be.
Having itchy legs is an uncomfortable sensation, ranging from mild to intolerable. It can wake you up in the middle of the night. When you scratch, the feeling of itchiness may get even more intense. And if it goes on for a while, it can cause anxiety and even depression.
Itchy legs typically do not indicate a serious health problem. Sometimes, it’s no big deal, such as dry winter skin or a couple of mosquito bites. But other times, it’s more serious, and the itchy leg is just a symptom of an underlying disease.
1. Dry skin or xerosis
Dry skin is a major cause of itching. Depending on the severity of dryness, the skin on the legs may crack, peel, feel rough, and become itchy. Causes of dry skin may include dehydration, cold and dry weather, or the use of harsh soaps and skincare products.
Xerosis, the medical term for extremely dry skin, is a condition that can occur for many reasons, such as climate, age, and skin conditions. This can be triggered by dry heat indoors during the winter or a hot bath. It can also be caused by spending a long time in the water or swimming in chlorinated water.
When you start scratching the area to relieve the itch, you may start to see lines, red bumps, and irritation. Besides itching, dry skin can cause rough or flaky skin, cracks in the skin, or ashy or darker skin tones.
Sometimes, you can have extremely dry, itchy skin without a root cause, and it’s a skin condition of its own. You need to apply moisturizers three or four times a day to help relieve the dryness and itchiness. You may also want to take shorter baths or showers and use warm, not hot water when bathing.
But sometimes, dry skin can be an early sign of dermatitis, eczema, or skin inflammation, which can cause itchy rashes or itchy patches of irritated skin. It may get worse without treatment, so if you suspect you have dermatitis, consult a dermatologist.
2. Skin conditions
Skin conditions can also cause itchy legs, wherein itchiness is a primary symptom besides skin redness or dryness. Skin conditions can be chronic, so they usually stick around for a long time – even for a person’s lifetime. Common skin conditions that can cause itchy legs are eczema and psoriasis.
Eczema is a skin condition that causes patches of red, itchy, inflamed, cracked, flaky, or swelling skin. If it flares up, it can get so itchy, and too much scratching can cause oozing of liquid and wounds. Eczema is usually treated with topical corticosteroid creams and ointments. Skincare is also essential for eczema, like moisturizing with sensitive skin-friendly lotion and using a mild soap when washing.
Some people living with vessel disorders like varicose veins or deep vein thrombosis can develop stasis or gravitational eczema, which causes itchy, reddish-purple patches on the lower legs. While treating for underlying conditions, the doctor may also recommend corticosteroids to treat the affected, itchy areas in the legs.
Meanwhile, psoriasis causes inflamed plaques to appear in the body. This immune-related skin disease usually develops on the knees, scalp, and elbows, but it can also appear on the legs. Relief for psoriasis is often given in topical treatments and ointments or through oral or injected medication.
3. Shaving issues
Sometimes, shaving the legs can cause razor bumps on legs, which can be itchy. Razor blades may scrape and irritate the skin, developing ingrown hair that grows back into the skin. Using a dull razor and shaving against the grain can cause these itchy, pimple-like bumps. To prevent this from happening, always use a clean, sharp razor.
But even if you don’t develop razor bumps after shaving your legs, you may experience some itching as the hair regrows. It may start for about 12 to 48 hours after shaving your legs. The cause of itching can be dry skin due to shaving, so make sure you apply moisturizer to your legs after shaving.
4. Poor hygiene
There are times when itching in the legs is caused by something as simple as poor hygiene. If you don’t wash your body regularly and properly, sweat, dirt, and dead skin cells can build up on the legs, irritating them and making them itchy. And the itchiness can be aggravated by dry air, heat, or contact with body-hugging clothing like leggings and skinny jeans.
Sometimes, itchy legs can be caused by dirty pants, jeans, or leggings. If you’ve worn them enough, dirt and sweat have already accumulated on the clothing, so toss them out to the laundry basket and wear something clean.
Bathe and shower regularly to prevent this, and wear clean clothes, especially if they cling to the skin. Use a mild soap that is non-irritating for your skin type, and apply moisturizer afterward to prevent it from drying out.
5. Insect bites
Itchy legs can be caused by something as simple as an insect bite. Insects like mosquitoes, fleas, and other bugs can create red bumps, hives, and itching. These reactions are usually minor and only cause mild redness and itching in certain areas. An over-the-counter moisturizer or ointment can easily relieve itchiness and inflammation. For insect bites, products containing menthol, lactate, or phenol can help.
But sometimes, insect bites cause a severe reaction. This may include dizziness, difficulty breathing, vomiting, a rapid heartbeat. If these symptoms occur, you need emergency medical care.
Check your itchy legs. Are they red because you scratched them, or it’s because of a rash? Itchy rashes are sometimes caused by coming in contact with an allergen. Sometimes, it happens if you’re allergic to grass and you sit on a lawn. Some are allergic to personal hygiene products that they apply to their legs. Items that commonly cause allergic reactions include:
- Metals like nickel
- Laundry detergents
- Fabric softener
To prevent itchiness, avoid getting in contact with the substance that triggers your reactions. Apply anti-itch medications like calamine lotion to relieve the itchiness.
Itchy legs may be an early warning sign of diabetes. If you’ve been previously diagnosed with diabetes or have a family history of the disease, itchiness signifies that your blood sugar levels are not under control. Itchiness associated with diabetes is due to peripheral neuropathy, which happens when high glucose levels damage the nerve fibers in the body, causing skin irritation and inflammation.
Diabetes can trigger dry skin due to poor circulation in the legs. The dryness can cause itchiness.
If a person with diabetes is concerned about irritable itching, they should ask their doctor to check for this condition so they can apply the proper treatment. Regular moisturizing and using a mild soap when bathing can help protect the skin.
8. Other diseases besides diabetes
While diabetes is one of the leading underlying cause of itchy legs, there are other diseases in the body that you may or may not know you have that’s causing the itch. Itching on the legs can be a sign or symptom of other diseases, including:
- Advanced kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Skin cancer
- Thyroid disease (hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism)
- Sjögren syndrome
Appropriate treatment for the disease that causes itchy legs must be recommended and supervised by a doctor. The doctor may also recommend specific topical treatments that can help address itchiness in your legs and other areas of the body.
Sometimes, itching of the skin is a side effect of medications you take for your other health conditions. Here are some drugs that often cause allergic reactions:
- Sulfa drugs
- Penicillin-based antibiotics
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
If itching is bothering you, consult your doctor and ask if you can get an alternative medication that does not have itchiness as a side effect. But if it’s not possible, you may need to address the itchiness using doctor-recommended topical treatments.
10. Expanded blood vessels
Exercise is a great way to strengthen the heart, lose weight, train your abdominal strength, build muscle mass, and even improve some chronic conditions. But if you’re starting a new exercise routine, you may feel itchy in your legs. Some people notice it after jogging, walking, and other workouts. This happens due to capillaries expanding in the legs, increasing blood flow to the muscles and surrounding nerves. This sensation is temporary and will subside once your body acclimates to a new workout.
11. Restless leg syndrome
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a condition that causes an uncontrollable urge to move the legs, usually because of an uncomfortable sensation. RLS can feel as if something is crawling on your skin, while some experience itchiness, tingling, or the feeling of pins and needles. Its symptoms are noticeable upon resting, like sitting or lying down. The symptoms of restlessness tend to fluctuate in severity, and sometimes it disappears for a period of time and comes back again.
The exact cause of RLS is unknown, but it’s believed to be caused by an imbalance in the brain chemicals that involve muscle movement.
12. Pregnancy issues
If you’re pregnant, you are susceptible to a couple of conditions that may cause itchiness in pregnant women. Pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (PUPPP) is a skin condition that develops during pregnancy, usually during the third trimester. Symptoms include an itchy rash or patches of red, raised skin. It can appear on the legs and thighs, as well as on the abdomen in stretch marks.
Another pregnancy condition, prurigo gestationis, can also cause itchy legs. This benign condition can trigger rashes on the limbs and the body. The cause of prurigo gestationis is unknown, but it may be due to fluctuating hormones. The rashes disappear in the weeks after childbirth.
Simple Itch Treatments and Itch Prevention
There are some home treatments you can do to reduce itchiness or stop the urge to scratch your legs:
- Keep your skin moisturized with lotions, creams, or gels.
- Apply moisturizer before and after shaving, as well as after a shower or bath.
- Use anti-itch creams, hydrocortisone, or calamine lotion. You may also take oral anti-histamines to stop allergic reactions.
- Apply cold to the itchy area. Use an ice pack or a cool, wet cloth.
- If you have itchy insect bites, put cooling camphor or menthol ointments or a calamine lotion.
- Apply aloe vera or aloe vera gels to relieve itchiness, dryness, and irritation.
- Take an oatmeal bath. Don’t use the oatmeal you eat for breakfast, though – use the fine powder kind called colloidal oatmeal. It can help clean, moisturize, and protect your skin.
- Keep yourself hydrated.
- Avoid scented soaps, lotions, and harsh detergents that can irritate the skin.
- Wear loose fabrics on the legs, especially during hot days.
- Practice proper shaving techniques.
- Exfoliate your legs before shaving to remove dead skin cells that trap hair, causing razor bumps.
- Use a sharp razor to shave your legs and shave along the grain or direction of the hair.