June 20, 2011— -- Anyone who has had a mosquito bite knows how maddening the relentless itching can be, even if it only lasts a few days.
But for people who suffer from itching that lasts weeks, months or even years, the discomfort can be debilitating. According to a new study, in fact, it can be just as debilitating as chronic pain.
Leigh, who didn't want her last name used, recently suffered from a bout of persistent itching that lasted for about two months. At first, doctors couldn't find the cause, so she was stuck trying various creams that didn't work.
"It distracted me from everything I did," she said. "I was constantly scratching or thinking about scratching."
Eventually, after a third trip to the doctor, she got a diagnosis: scabies, a condition that causes severe itching as a result of mites burrowing into the skin.
The condition went away a couple of months later, but only after she shelled out a lot of money for ineffective creams and scratched through many sleepless nights.
"Itching isn't much different than pain. Both impact quality of life," said Dr. Suephy Chen, associate professor of dermatology at the Emory University School of Medicine and a physician at the Atlanta VA Medical Center. Chen is also a co-author of the study published in the current issue of the journal Archives of Dermatology.
Chen and her fellow researchers wanted to find out how much chronic itching impacts people's lives. They compared subjects with chronic itch to subjects with chronic pain and discovered that both conditions are equally as debilitating. They defined chronic itching as anything lasting longer than six weeks.
Certain medical conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis, can cause itching. Chronic itching can also be idiopathic, meaning there's no known cause of it. Regardless of the reason behind it, people with the condition often experience depression, anxiety and difficult sleeping.
Study participants found their itching such a detriment to their quality of life that they indicated they were willing to give up 13 percent of their life span -- about 10 years, based on how long the average American lives -- to live itch-free.
The study also found that being married helped people deal with their situation better.
"Being married helped because they have a support system at home," said Chen. For people who aren't married, "having some other support system can be helpful."
Chronic Itching 'Underappreciated'
Support is vital because coping with chronic itching can be very difficult. Chen said she has several patients who have gotten divorced because their partners couldn't understand why the scratching wouldn't stop.
"The impact of itching is underappreciated," said Dr. Robert Kirsner, professor and vice president of the Department of Dermatology at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. "It can have severe effects on quality of life and this work serves to highlight its importance."
"If you think about medical conditions that people pay attention to, like cancer, people can relate to that," Kirsner added. "It's hard to relate to someone itching."
Chronic itching is also difficult to treat, unlike itching that lasts only a short time as well as chronic pain.
"There are a lot of options for pain control," said Dr. Jennifer Stein, assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. "But for people who have chronic itching, there are fewer options.
"It's especially bad at night," Stein added. "Sometimes, during the day you can preoccupy yourself with daily activities, but at night, there's not much to distract you from the itching."
Constant scratching can cause rashes, redness or cuts, and infection can set in. It can also be stigmatizing.
"It's fairly socially unacceptable to sit there scratching," said Chen.
Chen and other experts hope this study can lead to the development of more effective treatments for chronic itching.
That would be great news for Leigh, although she has one much bigger hope.
"I hope to never go through anything like that again," she said. "It was absolutely horrible."