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Chronic Itching Getting Under Your Skin?

If you count yourself a member of the 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. population suffering from chronic itching — itching that occurs for six weeks and longer — then you’ll be happy to learn that effective treatment is available, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all cure.

According to a recent study, chronic itching (called pruritus in medical circles) accounts for more than 7 million outpatient visits per year.

And it has a negative impact on quality of life with respect to mood, concentration, eating habits, sleep, and sexual function. In this blog post, we look at a patient we successfully treated for chronic itching here at BioDesign Wellness Center

Meet Jessica, a Chronic Itch Patient 

Jessica came to see us reporting of itchy skin on her sides and back. The itch was persistent, and while there were no observable signs of rash or dermatitis, she did have visible marks from scratching. 

Her itch had been ongoing for about six months, and she had no idea what may have triggered it. She hadn’t recently changed the soaps she used or her personal care products.

In an attempt to alleviate the itching, she made some adjustments to her soaps, shampoos, and laundry detergent, but these changes did not help. 

Sound familiar? If you have been itchy for weeks on end, and nothing that you or your doctors have tried has succeeded in relieving your suffering — creams, lotions, ointments, over-the-counter or prescription medications — then it’s time you try something different. 

Functional medicine offers testing and personalized treatments that can bring significant relief in a matter of days and a possible cure in a matter of weeks.

Recognizing Common Skin Conditions

Various medical conditions can cause itching, including these:

  • Dermatitis is a general term meaning “inflammation of the skin.” It’s the most common skin condition and is usually triggered by an allergy or a sensitivity to one or more ingredients in personal care products such as shampoos, conditioners, and soaps.

    Other triggers include mold (from food or water-damaged buildings), dust mites, pet dander (from a dog or cat), wool, latex, mineral oils, and chemicals found in many foods and beverages.

  • Eczema is a common form of dermatitis — essentially chronic inflammation of the skin, characterized by redness, itching, and the outbreak of lesions that may discharge fluid and become encrusted and scaly.

    To put it simply: if the skin condition is acute, it’s usually diagnosed as dermatitis, and if it’s chronic, it’s diagnosed as eczema. Eczema commonly affects the skin folds of the arms, hands, or wrists, the backs of knees, or the face. 

  • Psoriasis is an autoimmune disorder that causes red, itchy, scaly patches, most commonly on the knees, elbows, trunk, and scalp.

  • Skin infections can be caused by a fungus, bacteria, virus, or parasite. Fungal infections include jock itch, athlete’s foot, and ringworm. Viruses include herpes, shingles, and warts.

    Bacterial infections may include infected eczema, cellulitis, impetigo, folliculitis, and skin-borne rashes characteristic of a tick-borne illness such as Lyme disease. Various parasites can also breed on or in your skin, such as lice, sand fleas, and mites (which can cause scabies).

  • Hives can be caused by stress, sensitivities to foods, medications, or other substances, or a combination of stress and sensitivities.

Treatment is usually focused on providing symptom relief until the condition hopefully resolves on its own. Steroids and antihistamines may alleviate inflammation, antibiotics and antifungals may be useful in treating infections, and certain creams and ointments may promote healing.

Sometimes these treatments are successful enough to provide sufficient relief for the condition to resolve on its own. However, in many instances, these treatments simply don’t work. Worse, some medications used to treat skin conditions carry the risk of producing undesirable side effects.

Diagnosing the Root Cause of Itchy Skin

Conventional treatments often fail because they stop short of addressing the root cause of the condition. Doctors are well aware that itchy skin is usually the result of inflammation, but they don’t ask key follow-up questions, such as “What’s causing the inflammation?” or “What’s causing the body to react in a way that’s impacting the skin?” They focus solely on the surface of the body to diagnose a problem that may go much deeper than the skin.

Here are some of the most common root causes of rashes and itchy skin:

  • Diet: Skin conditions can often be traced to a food sensitivity. The most common culprits are dairy, peanuts, soy, wheat/gluten, corn, and shellfish. Lab tests are available to identify which foods may be causing problems.

  • Leaky gut: If your intestinal lining is damaged, protein molecules can pass through it into your bloodstream, triggering an immune response resulting in inflammation, which can affect any area of the body, including the skin.

    Increased intestinal permeability can cause eczema, psoriasis, or a bacterial, fungal, or viral infection that irritates the skin.

    We use stool tests — including the GI Map — to look for hidden infections, gluten sensitivity, and leaky gut, which is evidenced by the presence of a protein called zonulin — a biomarker of impaired gut barrier function. 

  • Toxicity: Toxins can build up in the body from pesticides, herbicides, plastics, tap water, heavy metals (including lead and mercury), mold from food and water-damaged buildings, and medications.

    The body has several detox mechanisms and organs, such as the liver and kidneys, for filtering, breaking down, and eliminating toxins, but the body also detoxes through the skin — the largest organ of the human body. Itchy skin is a telltale sign that detox may be needed.

  • Stress: Stress alone can cause a person to break out in hives, so it’s no surprise that it can also contribute to other itchy skin conditions. Stress can also increase cortisol and weaken the immune response increasing susceptibility to infection.

A functional medicine approach to diagnosing and treating skin conditions considers all these factors and screens for them. Screening involves a physical examination, looking into your medical and family history, talking to you about your diet and lifestyle, and then ordering lab tests to gain additional insight into what’s going on in your body.

Jessica: The Rest of Her Story

Jessica described her itching as if there was something “crawling under her skin,” which led us to suspect the possibility of a parasitic infection, so we ordered a stool test to check for parasites.

The results came back negative (no parasites). We also ordered a skin swab through the Parasitology Center, Inc., which also showed no parasites.

After ruling out a parasitic infection, we determined that her condition must be related to one or more environmental factors. Jessica mentioned a possible mold problem in her heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

She had her HVAC system inspected and tested, and the results confirmed our suspicions — test results were positive for Aspergillus and Penicillium, two fungi common in water-damaged buildings.

We now knew that Jessica had been exposed to these fungi, but we didn’t know the extent of her exposure, so we ordered a mycotoxin urine test.

Results showed elevated levels of Ochratoxin and Gliotoxin, both of which can disrupt liver and kidney function, impairing two key detoxification pathways. Itching is quite common when the liver, intestines, or kidneys are unable to detoxify the body adequately from mold or other toxins.

The first step in Jessica’s treatment involved mold remediation — having her HVAC system professionally cleaned and treated for mold. This step was essential for eliminating the root cause of the exposure. 

Next, Jessica completed a 60-day detoxification protocol that included the following:

  • Glutathione to mobilize and reduce the impact of mycotoxins
  • Charcoal and clay to bind toxins in the intestines
  • Bitters to support liver and kidney function
  • Saunas to allow her body to shed toxins while sweating

After the first two weeks of her detoxification program, Jessica’s itching, which had lasted for six months, was gone. She completed the remaining weeks of the detox protocol to give her body the support it needed to eliminate the remaining toxins.

Jessica’s story is only one example of how a skin condition can be treated with a functional medicine approach. It’s important to realize that even if two patients have identical symptoms, the cause(s) of those symptoms may be entirely different.

Jessica’s symptoms could have just as easily been caused by a parasite, an infection, something in her diet, or a host of other environmental toxins. Testing must be done to identify the root cause(s), so effective treatments can be selected.

Merely rubbing on creams or ointments — prescription or natural — or taking medications to calm the inflammation won’t be effective until the root cause is identified and eliminated.

If you or a loved one is living with an undiagnosed or persistent skin condition for which you’ve had no relief, consider trying a functional medicine approach. If you’re in the Tampa, Florida area, contact us to schedule an initial consultation.


Disclaimer: The information in this blog post about chronic itching is provided for general informational purposes only and may not reflect current medical thinking or practices. No information contained in this post should be construed as medical advice from the medical staff at BioDesign Wellness Center, Inc., nor is this post intended to be a substitute for medical counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate medical advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a licensed medical professional in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.