Itch: Epidemiology, clinical presentation, and diagnostic workup

J Am Acad Dermatol. 2022 Jan;86(1):1-14. doi: 10.1016/j.jaad.2021.07.076. Epub 2021 Aug 21.


Itch, or pruritus, is the uncomfortable sensation underlying the desire to scratch. Itch is a very common complaint in the general population that can result from dermatologic, systemic (eg, renal, hepatobiliary, endocrine), paraneoplastic, neuropathic, and psychogenic etiologies. Chronic itch is associated with significant sleep disturbances and profoundly reduces overall quality of life. Certain populations, including elderly and African Americans, are at increased risk of experiencing heightened burden of itch. Because of the variable clinical presentation and wide-ranging etiologies, itch presents a challenge for clinicians. The initial evaluation should include a complete blood count, with differential, hepatic, renal, and thyroid function testing along with diabetes screening. Further testing should be guided by history and physical examination findings. There should be a heightened concern for underlying malignancy in individuals older than 60 years of age who have a history of liver disease and diffuse itch less than 12 months of duration. For individuals with chronic pruritus of unknown origin, increased blood eosinophils may serve as a biomarker of T helper cell type 2 polarization and response to immunomodulator therapies. In this first part of a 2-part continuing medical education series, we describe the broader epidemiology and specific conditions associated with itch and the clinical presentation and diagnostic workup for patients with itch.

Keywords: clinical features; diagnostic workup; epidemiology; itch; pruritus.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Combined Modality Therapy
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Neoplasms* / complications
  • Peripheral Nervous System Diseases* / complications
  • Pruritus / diagnosis
  • Pruritus / epidemiology
  • Pruritus / etiology
  • Quality of Life