Dear Alice,

I don't exercise often, but when I do, after about twenty minutes of walking, my legs start itching like mad. Usually after a couple days, it stops. What causes this itching?

Dear Reader,

It’s good you’re not running away from your itching issue! Trying to get to the bottom of what’s causing this itch is smart. Here’s why: While most causes of itching after physical activity are harmless (and also, relatively common), in rare cases, the “mad” itching could be indicative of a more serious health issue.

First, a few questions: Has the itching just started? Do you experience itchy legs at other times besides right after walking? Perhaps after eating certain foods? Or, after experiencing emotional stress? Are there additional symptoms that accompany your itchy legs? Are you feeling pain? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s probably a good idea to visit your health care provider in order to rule out any serious health conditions. Columbia students on the Morningside campus can contact Medical Services; students on the Medical Center campus can reach out to Student Health.

Now, let’s talk about a number of issues that could be causing your itchy legs:

  • New to exercise. You mentioned that you don't exercise very often. Consider this: When you increase physical activity, the little capillaries in your skin expand rapidly to increase blood flow, which triggers neighboring nerves to send impulses that the brain interprets as an itching sensation. This generally decreases as your body adjusts to the new workout routine. If exercise is nothing new for you, it's more likely a dry skin issue (see below).
  • Dry skin. Since you didn’t mention any other symptoms, it could be that dry skin is the culprit. Are you walking outside or inside? Often, dry weather conditions can cause or exacerbate dry skin. If this is the case, using lotion, investing in a humidifier, and staying hydrated can all help combat dry skin.
  • Skin irritation. Have you switched detergents, started using a new lotion, or are you using a new soap? If so, try eliminating these products one-by-one and see if the itching subsides. Perhaps you’ve recently switched up your running gear? It’s generally recommended that individuals with sensitive skin stick to loose cotton clothes when working out and avoid synthetic materials.
  • Poor blood circulation. When you exercise, blood is directed to the muscles in your body that are doing the most work. Certain conditions, such as peripheral artery disease, can cause blood vessels to narrow, thereby interfering with circulation and potentially causing pain or tingling. If you experience pain in addition to itching, it’s a good idea to visit your health care provider.
  • Cholinergic urticarial. This is a relatively common immune system disorder which is characterized by a skin reaction (in the form of hives). The hives appear in response to an increase of body temperature from anxiety, sweat, heat, emotional stress, and/or physical activity. Some folks experience a rash only on certain parts of the body (such as their legs).  Working out in cooler and dryer environments, decreasing exercise intensity, and ending physical activity as soon as symptoms appear can be of some benefit.
  • In very rare cases, exercise-induced anaphylaxis could cause itchy legs by way of hives; however, this condition is often accompanied by other, more serious, symptoms. Seek immediate medical attention if you have hives or a rash in addition to any of the following symptoms: Difficulty swallowing or breathing, wheezing, or feelings of tightness in the chest or throat.

Sometimes, itchy legs can be combated simply by allowing more time for your body to cool down after physical activity. Talk with your health care provider about diagnosing and treating your itchy legs. Together you can come up with a plan and/or treatment that will take the scratch out of your stride.


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