The aim of the study was to investigate clinical aspects of pruritus in maintenance hemodialysis patients and to evaluate factors of putative pathogenic importance. 60-65% of the patients in a maintenance hemodialysis program during a two-year period suffered from itching. Patients with pruritus tended to have been on dialysis treatment longer than those without pruritus (p = 0.05), otherwise there was no difference in clinical data or routine laboratory tests. Measurement of itch intensity continuously over one week in 28 patients using a computerized method showed that itching peaked at night after two days without dialysis, was relatively high during treatment and lowest during the day following dialysis. Our results suggest that the accumulation of pruritogens between dialysis sessions influences the intensity of itching. Most patients had "dry" skin. Recording of the stratum corneum water content by measurement of electrical capacitance, in 31 patients (19 with pruritus) and 12 controls, disclosed no significant difference between dialysis patients and controls, but a tendency that pruritic patients had a lower water content than the other subjects. In different body areas, there was a positive correlation in all groups between the clinical estimation of xerosis and hydration. Serum concentrations of parathyroid hormone (PTH) were significantly higher in dialysis patients with pruritus than in those without, but there was no correlation between the degree of symptoms and the PTH level. Indirect immunohistochemistry revealed no immunoreactivity for different parts of the PTH molecule in skin biopsies from uremic patients. Intradermal injections of PTH fragments did not evoke itching or other cutaneous reactions in patients or controls. Our results do not support PTH as a peripheral mediator of uremic itching. Flare reactions induced by intradermal histamine injections were significantly smaller in 26 dialysis patients (18 with pruritus) than in 9 healthy subjects. However, the itch responses were greater in patients with pruritus than in the other subjects, indicating an augmented sensitivity to pruritogens. Repeated histamine injections induced tachyphylaxis in both uremic patients and controls. Indirect immunohistochemistry revealed neuron-specific enolase (NSE) immunoreactive nerve fibers sprouting throughout the layers of the epidermis in 12 dialysis patients (9 with pruritus) but in none of 15 controls. This finding suggests that hemodialysis patients develop an abnormal pattern of cutaneous innervation.