Is there anything worse than an itch that just doesn’t go away – the kind of itch that, once you start scratching, becomes 10-times worse until it’s completely unbearable and you have no choice but to stand under a freezing cold shower, hoping it dies down?
While the recent summer heat is very much welcome after what seemed like a relentlessly long winter and very rainy spring, it can also bring with it no small amount of itching for those with existing skin conditions – as well as anyone who spends too much time in the sun.
We spoke to Dr Adam Friedmann, consultant dermatologist at Stratum Dermatology Clinics, about the most common itchy skin complaints he comes across in the summertime – and how to remedy them.
One of the most obvious – and common – causes of itchy skin in summer is sunburn which, as we all know, is skin damage caused by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Skin might be particularly itchy by the time it reaches the peeling stage and Dr Friedmann’s advice here is simple: “Avoid at all costs, if you can.”
People who live in the UK are most at risk of getting burnt between 11am-3pm when the sun is at its strongest. During these times it’s worth staying in the shade as much as possible, covering up with loose clothing and a hat, and protecting your skin with sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF) – we’re talking 30+.
If you do happen to get sunburnt (hey, it happens to the best of us), you can relieve your skin by sponging it with cold water or having a cold bath or shower, according to NHS Choices. Just make sure you avoid using soap as this can dry out and irritate burnt skin.
Once you’ve washed, apply a water-based emollient (moisturiser) to your skin to keep it cool and moist. For an extra soothing sensation, keep your moisturiser in the fridge.
It’s thought getting sunburnt just once every two years triples the risk of melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer, so it really is best to avoid sun burn as much as possible.
2. Insect bites
Another really common cause of itchy skin in summer is insect bites. “Occasionally you get patients coming in with a horrible rash and they’ve just been eaten by a load of mozzies or bed bugs,” says Dr Friedmann.
There are a whole array of bugs which love to bite including horseflies, ticks, mosquitoes, fleas, bedbugs, spiders and midges. You might end up with a red swollen lump – or multiple lumps if the insect was particularly peckish – which can be very itchy and annoying.
If you’ve been bitten (or suspect you have), it’s best to wash the area with soap and water, and then apply a cold compress or ice pack, suggests the NHS, and avoid scratching the area as this’ll only make it worse. If the itching is driving you up the wall, visit your local pharmacist who may be able to offer creams to help soothe the itching, as well as antihistamines.
Short-term remedies for itchy skin:
Putting cold flannels or ice packs on the itchy area
Moisturising creams (“they cool the skin but also help with itch,” says Dr Friedmann who recommends after-sun products containing Aloe Vera)
Keeping cool and staying in the shade if the sun is causing skin issues
Avoiding irritants like chlorine in pools
Covering up with light linen clothing when out in the sun
3. Eczema and psoriasis
Eczema and psoriasis are the most common issues dermatologists see all year round – and that includes summertime. Eczema is characterised by itchy, dry and cracked skin, while psoriasis causes red, flaky, crusty patches of skin covered with silvery scales.
“In the summertime, some people actually get better because the sunlight improves it, but some people get worse because they find the heat and the sweat just makes their skin get much worse,” says Dr Friedmann. “So consequently it might be as simple as eczema and psoriasis getting worse because of the temperature.”
You can also get irritant eczema, which can crop up because you’re exposing your skin to an irritant – such as chlorine in the swimming pool on holiday.
Depending on how severe the issue is, there are generally three strategies to coping with itchy conditions and rashes like eczema and psoriasis, says Dr Friedmann. Firstly, using moisturisers (emollients are particularly popular for eczema) and topical therapies like creams and lotions (sometimes these contain steroids).
Next, trying strategies like sunlight therapy, which involves exposing your skin to certain types of ultraviolet light. “This is very good at suppressing your immune system which is why acne and psoriasis tend to get better in the sun,” says Dr Friedmann.
And then if the first two don’t seem to be working, you might be offered drug therapy.
Ultimately, if your eczema or psoriasis is causing real issues for you, it’s worth getting referred to see a dermatologist. “We treat you with avoidance of the precipitant if we can find out what it is – so we can work out if it’s the sunshine, an allergy, sweat or heat – we can try and avoid that and that will help you,” says Dr Friedmann.
4. Heat rashes
Sunlight-related conditions, like polymorphic light eruption, are also common come summer and are characterised by the appearance of an itchy skin rash caused by exposure to the sun.
“It can look like lots of different things,” says Dr Friedmann. “People complain of those little heat bumps that come up in the sun but it can also be rashes that come and go in the sun – they generally come when the sun is strong and then you kind of get used to them over a while.”
Interestingly, the issue can clear up on its own as you become more desensitised to sun exposure. But obviously, you might not want to sit out in the sun if it’s making you come out in a rash. You have a few options in how you deal with the issue. You can stay out of the sun to stop the rash from developing in the first place or speak to your GP about using corticosteroid (steroid) creams or ointments if the rash has already appeared.
Alternatively, Dr Friedmann says some people might benefit from desensitising treatment to build up tolerance – “we can actually put them in a light box and give them low doses of ultraviolet before they go away [on holiday] ... to gradually build up their tolerance,” he says.
5. Contact dermatitis
Have you ever gone on holiday only to find the sun cream you’ve religiously lathered on for decades is bringing you out in a rash? Far from ideal.
Contact dermatitis is another common issue where a person becomes allergic to a product over time. “Classically, people have a very difficult conundrum when they use a sun cream and they go out in the sun and get a rash – and the big question that can be really quite hard to work out sometimes is: what’s caused this?” says Dr Friedmann.
“Is it the sun that’s caused it? Is it that you’ve got something serendipitous like an eczema that’s just come up all of a sudden? Or is it that you’ve become allergic to something you’re putting on your skin, like sun cream.”
The issue is one of the easiest to treat if you can identify what’s bringing you out in a rash, he says – as you basically just avoid that allergen going forward. You might also be recommended emollients to help moisturise your skin which usually becomes itchy, blistered, dry and cracked. “The objective there is: can we identify what’s making your skin allergic?” says Dr Friedman. “Once we’ve done that, we can say: you’re allergic to this, avoid it and you’ll get better.”