Itchy legs?

Dear Alice,

What can I do about my itchy legs? It's getting pretty bad lately and lotion doesn't seem to help. Also I'm a runner. Does that have anything to do with it?

Signed, Scratching

Dear Scratching, 

That itch you just can't scratch may be more than skin deep. Usually, dry skin is the most common cause of itching that affects large parts of the body. It’s also possible for itchy skin to be a result of reactions to environmental factors, allergies, or even physical activity. Some specific causes could include: 

  • Very dry skin 
  • Bug bites 
  • An itchy skin condition 
  • Allergic reaction 
  • Reaction to plants, water, or lotions 
  • Nerve issues 

You might consider testing out some of the following to cure your itch yourself: 

  • Keeping your baths and showers warm. Consider keeping your bath and shower water on the lukewarm to cooler side since using hot water has been shown to cause inflammation in the skin, which can lead to dryness and itching. 
  • Applying moisturizing body oil or lotion. Especially after a bath or shower to add moisture back to your skin; avoiding products that contain alcohol, which is drying may help. Choose a mild soap over deodorant soap and use as little of it as you can. If you take baths, consider adding bath oil, cornstarch, or instant or colloidal oatmeal to the water. 
  • Trying not to scratch. This may cause the skin to become further irritated. 
  • Taking an antihistamine. This may help provide you with some relief from the inside out. 

You mentioned that you think the itching might be connected to running. There are some questions to consider when trying to decide whether running may be causing your itch. Have you noticed that it gets worse after a run? Is your itch prevalent all the time? Do you find that it’s worse or better under different running conditions? When you increase physical activity, little blood vessels in your skin expand rapidly to increase blood flow. This increased blood flow 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 you find that the majority of the itching occurs during physical activity, you may have to try a few different tactics to prevent an itch before going on a run. Consider adjusting your workout clothes to account for hot or cold weather to see if that makes a difference. You may want to be conscious of when you are running by avoiding excessive sun exposure and exercising during the coolest part of the day. To help with your circulation you may want to consider using compression socks and see if that assuages the itch. That said, if running is nothing new for you, your level of activity may not be the issue. 

Unexplained generalized itching can be a symptom of any number of serious disorders—so, if you can't explain the itching and it won't quit within a few weeks of attempting some home remedies, you might consider visiting with a health care provider to make sure it isn't a sign of an underlying illness. If it turns out that your itchiness is more than skin deep, there are a number of treatments that a health care provider or dermatologist can suggest to help you find some relief. 

Hope this helped scratch the surface of understanding your itchy legs. 

Last updated Jun 16, 2023
Originally published Mar 19, 1994

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