What makes us itch more as we grow older? Chronic itch of unknown cause, or chronic idiopathic pruritus (CIP), is more common that most people realize. This itch comes and goes without warning and does not discriminate when it comes to gender. However, it does increase in prevalence as we age.
Washington University dermatologist Brian Kim, MD, MTR, explains, “Everyone’s skin becomes thinner and weaker with age. This can lead to dryer skin, resulting in more irritation. Also, a compromised skin barrier allows for undue exposure to environmental allergens which can result in skin inflammation or even a rash.
We also know that the immune system becomes impaired with age. Patients become more susceptible to viral complications such as shingles, gastroenteritis and the flu. For similar reasons, it is believed that the gradual deterioration of the immune system leads to more inflammation and hypersensitivity in the skin.
Finally, with aging, it appears that the nervous system becomes hyperexcitable and improperly regulated to result in unwanted sensations of itch. ”
The chronic, relapsing itch most commonly affects the trunk of the body and extremities. Many patients will not have any history of prior itch or skin-related conditions such as eczema.
It is time to see a physician if the itch is affecting one’s quality of life or daily function due to discomfort, loss of sleep or anxiety.
Treatment to repair the skin usually consists of using aggressive topical moisturizers and intermittent topical steroids to limit inflammation. Immunosuppressants, targeted biologic therapies, and UV light therapy can also be effective treatments.
There is emerging evidence that chronic inflammation leads to aging-related problems. Dr. Kim says, “My research focuses on how disturbances in the immune system may actually lead to various forms of chronic pruritus. We are employing a variety of methods to tackle the fundamental question of what causes chronic itch. These approaches include studying how one’s genes interact with the environment – which greatly influences both the immune and nervous systems.”
If you or someone you know suffers from chronic itch and would like to make an appointment with Dr. Kim, please call Nancy Bodet, RN at (314) 273-1376.
Center for Advanced Medicine
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St. Louis, MO 63110