2/8/2022 | By Howard LeWine, M.D.

Dr. Howard LeWine of Brigham and Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School addresses a problem with generalized itching. The writer’s aging father complains about itching all over his body, but there are no apparent reasons, no obvious skin problems, and no clear solutions.


My father keeps complaining about being itchy in different parts of his body. I see scratch marks on his arms, but not on areas he can’t reach. Is this common and what can he do?


Generalized itching has many potential triggers. One is aging. The skin barrier doesn’t work as well as it used to, and things that may not have irritated a person before may now be absorbed in the skin and cause itching. The skin also develops a somewhat impaired immune response, a reduction in fat and blood flow, and altered sensory perception, making it more prone to being itchy.

Here are some other causes of generalized itching without obvious signs:

  • Environment. Very hot, dry environments or lots of hot showers can make the skin dry and itchy, as can excessive exposure to sunlight.
  • Lifestyle. Poor sleep, smoking, or an unhealthy diet may make the skin drier or more reactive to irritants.
  • Neuropathy. Nerve damage (neuropathy) that causes numbness, tingling, weakness, or pain can also cause itching.
  • Medication. Itching may be a side effect of one of his medications. Even if he takes a drug that didn’t bother him before, he may now be taking a generic version with different inactive ingredients, such as the dye coloring the pill, and that may cause the itch.
  • Underlying conditions. Itching may be a symptom of an undiagnosed medical problem, such as liver, kidney, or thyroid disease; or iron deficiency anemia.
  • Psychological conditions. High stress, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are common causes of generalized itching.
  • Allergens. Detergents, fabrics, cosmetics, dust, and plant pollen can cause itching from irritation. One can acquire an allergic reaction to anything that comes in contact with the skin.

Getting rid of generalized itching starts with looking at a person’s lifestyle. Taking too many hot showers? Reduce the number to a few per week. Make the water warm, not hot. If his home is hot and dry, consider lowering the temperature and getting a humidifier. Aim for a goal of 40% humidity indoors.

Related: Six common age-related changes to our bodies

If he is not already moisturizing his skin, it’s time to start. Have him use an emollient (a mixture of water and oil) every day, especially after washing his hands and after getting out of the bath or shower (to lock in moisture).

If these measures don’t help, it’s time to for him to see his doctor. Teasing out the cause of generalized itching requires investigation. He should be prepared to describe his itchy symptoms, where they occur on his body and at what time of day, and how long he has been experiencing them.

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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit