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Have an itchy stomach and don't know the cause? Nobody likes to be itchy, so here are the down-and-dirty reasons for an itchy stomach and what you can do about it.
What causes an itchy stomach?
Possible causes of itching can be grouped into these seven categories:
- skin conditions
- insect bites
- reaction to medication
- other conditions
The most common cause of an itchy belly is dry skin. If you love long, steamy showers, live in a cold climate, or use scented soaps, your skin might be irritated.
Some people are more prone to dry skin than others. Dryness most often develops on the arms or legs, but it can also happen on your stomach.
Symptoms of skin dryness:
- a feeling of tightness (like how it feels after a shower, a bath, or lounging in the pool)
- flaking or peeling
- a rough look and/or feel
- lines or cracks
- bleeding in deep cracks
Psoriasis is an inflammatory condition that causes your body to make too many skin cells. When these excess skin cells die and flake off, they form thick, silvery scales. These patches are called plaques, and they're super itchy.
Plaques usually show up around the elbows, knees, and scalp, but they can appear just about anywhere - including your belly. This area is more likely to be affected if there are tummy rolls where skin can rub against skin.
Other types of psoriasis may cause red dots or blisters.
Eczema (aka atopic dermatitis) is a condition that causes patches of skin to become dry, red, and very itchy. You may also experience skin swelling and cracking.
The 411 on eczema:
- It's not contagious.
- Foods are a potential trigger.
- Pollen, smoke, or other allergens can trigger it.
- It often affects children, and many eventually grow out of it.
- There is no cure, and most treatments focus on relieving symptoms.
This type of eczema is triggered by contact with a skin irritant. Possible triggers include cosmetics, soaps, latex, cleaning products, jewelry (check that belly button piercing from 2005), poison oak, and poison ivy.
Common symptoms of contact dermatitis include:
- dry, flaky skin
- blisters that ooze
- skin redness
- dark or leathery skin
- severe itchiness
- tight-feeling skin
Menopause occurs when a woman's estrogen levels drop and she stops getting her periods, signaling the end of her reproductive years. (Pop some champagne - you made it!)
It usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55 but can also happen earlier or later. A common symptom of menopause is dry skin due to lack of estrogen, and this dry, itchy skin can occur on the stomach or elsewhere.
Itchiness plus red bumps on your stomach might actually be the result of bedbugs. Gnarly! What if it's a flea bite? Here's the difference between the two:
- Bedbug bites look like a zigzag or a line, usually on areas where your clothes aren't covering your skin.
- Flea bites appear in clusters near your lower legs or ankles. The bumps have little red halos around them.
Starting a new medication could trigger a reaction in your skin, including an itchy stomach. You may also notice a rash on your belly and/or back.
Call your doctor right away if you suspect a medication allergy.
Other possible conditions
Did you have chickenpox as a kid? If you didn't and you're scratching at a rash on your stomach, there's a chance you have it now.
Other symptoms of chickenpox include:
- loss of appetite.
Your tummy itching could also be a sign of hypothyroidism, which happens when your thyroid gland doesn't work properly.
Your body needs certain hormones to maintain a healthy metabolism and generate glowing skin. If your body isn't producing those hormones, your skin may be on the fritz.
Other signs of hypothyroidism:
- increased sensitivity to cold
- weight gain
- thin, dry hair and brittle nails
- slow heart rate
- difficulty concentrating
Stomach itching during pregnancy
Pregnancy can cause an itchy belly for a number of reasons, including:
- changes in hormone levels
- your stomach stretching to make room for a brand-new human
- pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (let's just call this “PUPPP rash” from now on, OK?)
- intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP), a liver condition resulting from inhibited flow of bile from your liver (not to be confused with the Insane Clown Posse, which, quite frankly, sounds just as intimidating)
This is an itchy rash that appears in stretch marks on your stomach. The rash typically appears during the third trimester of pregnancy, when the baby grows the most.
The rash closely resembles hives and may begin as small, pink, pimple-like spots within the stretch marks. The rash may eventually become a large, red plaque on your stomach or abdomen.
PUPPP rash will go away within one to two weeks of the end of the pregnancy.
This is a rare condition that happens when bile can't flow out of your liver properly due to a blockage. ICP typically occurs in the late stages of pregnancy and can cause serious itching, especially on your hands and feet.
Other signs to look out for:
- jaundice (yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes)
- lack of appetite
- dark urine
- light-colored stool
If these symptoms sound familiar, call your doctor. ICP must be treated right away because it can lead to complications. If you have ICP, your doctor might recommend inducing labor at 37 weeks of pregnancy (sometimes earlier) for the safety of the baby.
Could it be cancer?
It's rare that belly itchiness signals cancer. But some cancer treatments, like radiation and certain medications, can cause itchy, dry skin or rashes.
Blood cancers, such as polycythemia vera and pancreatic cancer, list itchiness among their symptoms, although not their primary symptoms.
Red rashes and scaly skin in places rarely exposed to the sun, such as the stomach, can be early signs of the blood cancer Sézary syndrome (also known as mycosis fungoides).
Other signs of Sézary syndrome include:
- changes in your nails, hair, and eyelids
- enlarged lymph nodes
- a red, scaly rash that can cover about 80 percent of your body
How to treat an itchy belly
Treatment for an itchy stomach really depends on the cause. Whatever it is, try not to scratch! Scratching can spread irritants on your skin to new areas and lead to an infection.
Some helpful itch-relief tips:
- Take a calming oatmeal bath.
- Stay in the shade and away from direct heat.
- Wear loose and natural fabrics like cotton.
- Go fragrance-free in your beauty and skin care products.
- When the itching is particularly bothersome, hold a cool compress to your stomach for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Apply corticosteroid creams or take an oral antihistamine. These should be used for only a short time.
Stop the itch before it becomes a scratch
Here are some general tips for avoiding dry skin, rashes, and flare-ups of underlying itchy conditions like eczema.
- Repeat after me: “Lotion is my friend - but not the scented kind.”
- Avoid anything scented, like soaps or detergents. They'll dry out your skin fast.
- Let your body breathe - wear loose clothing.
- Avoid long, hot showers and/or baths (your daily performance of the “Hamilton” soundtrack will have to happen during your commute). Shorter showers with lukewarm water will help you in the long run.
- Stay hydrated. No-brainer, right?
Should I call the doc?
If the itchiness doesn't get better with over-the-counter treatments after a few days, you should see a doctor.
Signs that you should make an appointment:
- itchiness gets in the way of sleeping
- itchiness spreads
- weight loss
- trouble going to the bathroom (#1 or #2)
- redness and/or warmth on your skin
- fever higher than 102°F
- stomach pain
- signs of an allergic reaction, like swelling, rapid heartbeat, or trouble breathing
- you're more than 28 weeks pregnant and the itching won't stop
If at any time you're having trouble breathing, call 911 and seek emergency medical attention.
Getting to the bottom of it
So, you've decided it's time to see a doctor. You may be referred to a dermatologist or another specialist, depending on your healthcare options.
Questions your doctor might ask:
- When did the itching start?
- What seems to make it better? Worse?
- How often do you shower or take a bath?
- What types of skin care products do you use?
- Any pre-existing medical conditions?
- Do any skin conditions run in your family?
- Do you have any other symptoms that you know of?
- Do you have any allergies to detergents or other products?
Your doctor will most likely use one or more tests to help diagnose the cause.
- an allergy test, such as a scratch or patch test to determine if an allergen is triggering the itch
- a skin biopsy, where a piece of skin is removed from the itchy area and examined for anything abnormal
- a blood test to check that your thyroid is working properly
Usually, OTCs can take care of an itchy stomach. But if that itchiness gets out of control, seek medical care. Nothing should get in the way of you living your best life.