Itchy arms and hands are symptoms that can occur in a variety of different diseases. It is also associated with a number of cultural beliefs, particular with regards to itchy palms. Itching of the arms and hands is not a specific diagnostic symptom that can be used to confirm the presence of a specific disease. Other signs and symptoms need to be considered in conjunction with itching to arrive at a diagnosis of a disease.
Causes of Itchy Arms and Hands
Some of the diseases that involve itching in the arms and hands are discussed below.
Keratosis pilaris is a chronic skin condition that is also known as “chicken skin’ or “goose bumps”. It is a benign skin disorder that is characterized by the appearance of tiny bumps or acne (hence the names “goose bumps” and “chicken skin”) on the skin in many parts of the body, including the upper arms. These skin bumps are caused by dead skin cells that, instead of being shed off, accumulate and plug the hair follicles.
Keratoris pilaris is a very common hereditary condition. This skin condition may appear in babies or during adolescence. However, the condition is benign and tends to resolve with age. Ingrown hair, dry skin, and atopic dermatitis may also appear alongside keratosis pilaris. The following are some of the main symptoms of keratosis pilaris:
- Bumps or acne patches on skin: Appearance of small bumps on the skin of the upper arms, upper back, thighs, cheeks, and other regions of the body is the main characteristic of keratosis pilaris. These bumps are hard and can be reddish, brownish, or skin-colored in appearance. These bumps also change in size with changes in the outside temperature, becoming big in winters and small in summers. They may even clear up entirely during the summers.
- Itching: The bumps on the skin may be itchy. However, this is not very common.
Treatment for keratosis pilaris includes the following measures:
- Using moisturizing creams that contain salicylic acid, urea, lactic acid, or tretinoin
- Rubbing the affected skin patches with a pumice stone during bath
- Hair removal (using lasers)
- Using skin exfoliants (retinoid-containing exfoliants should be avoided in babies and pregnant women
- Removing acne with chemical peels, laser and other light devices.
These treatments cannot cure keratosis pilaris. However, they can be useful in managing the thickening of the skin, if used regularly.
Upper arm acne
Itching in the arms could also be a result of acne. Acne are small, red bumps that sometimes have a whitish central area. Acne can appear on the skin in many regions of the body. The most common acne-prone areas are the face, back, thighs, buttocks, chest, shoulders, and upper arms. Acne can result from a variety of causes, including acne vulgaris, staphylococcus folliculitis, hot tub folliculitis, and shingles (or herpes zoster infection).
Read more on acne.
Brachioradial pruritis, also known earlier as the itchy upper arm syndrome, is characterized by an intense itching of the skin on the upper arms, forearms and shoulders. Both the arms may be affected in an individual. The skin areas that are most likely to be affected are those that are most frequently exposed to the sun. The itching sensation may also be accompanied with burning and tingling sensations. However, no skin rash is usually present.
These symptoms may last for many weeks to several years. A characteristic of the itching in brachioradial pruritis is that it does not stay constant at all times. The itching gets worse at night time and with exposure to the sun. Itching symptoms may disappear altogether in winter time. Brachioradial pruritis seems to affect only those individuals who are above the age of eighteen years.
Nerve damage in areas of skin that are exposed to the sun, as well as nerve compression caused by deformed bony projections of the cervical vertebrae, have been associated with this condition. However, the precise cause of brachioradial pruritis remains unknown. Brachioradial pruritis is diagnosed through microscopic examination of a skin biospy, which usually reveals skin atrophy and damage to the nerves in the skin.
The following are some of treatment options for brachioradial pruritis:
- Cold packs: Applying ice packs or a cold and wet cloth on the affected skin area is a very effective remedy for this condition.
- Topical capsaicin: Topical capsaicin application to the affected skin areas can be helpful in providing temporary relief.
- Oral medicines: Oral medications for brachioradialis pruritis includes tricyclic antidepressants and antihistamines. These medications may help in sleeping.
The best preventive measure against brachioradialis pruritis is to prevent exposure of the skin to strong sunlight. Wearing long-sleeved shirts, applying sunscreens, and avoiding direct exposure to the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. may help prevent the onset of symptoms.
Intense itching is also a feature of pompholyx (also known as dyshidrotic or vesicular eczema). Pompholyx is characterized by inflammation of the skin on the hands and the feet. This condition is also characterized by the appearance of blisters, dry reddish bumps, and swelling around the nails. These symptoms get worse upon exposure to detergents and other irritant solvents.
Pompholyx seems to occur in individuals with sweaty palms. However, the exact cause is not known. A variety of treatments are in use for pompholyx. These include application of vinegar, aluminium acetate, moisturizing creams, corticosteroids, and (in case of infections) antibiotics. UV light therapy may also be used. However, all these treatments are rarely effective in completely curing pompholyx.
Contact or allergic dermatitis is another skin condition that is characterized by itching of the hands and arms. Contact dermatitis happens when the skin comes in physical contact with certain irritants, such as solvents, detergents, car oil, rubber, hair dyes, metals, antibiotics, and cosmetics. Allergic skin reaction may develop within 48-72 hours of contact with an irritant. Genetic factors are likely to be involved in the development of allergic hand dermatitis. Oral antihistamines and corticosteroids are usually given in these cases.
Read more on eczema.
In palmoplantar keratoderma, the skin on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet may get abnormally thick. This thickened skin may sometimes be itchy. Palmoplantar keratoderma can be found in a variety of conditions, including psoriasis, eczema, infections, circulatory disorders, and cancers. The condition may even be inherited. Palmoplantar keratoderma is treated through moisturizing skin creams and ointments containing vitamin D, salicylic acid, or retinoids.
Raynaud’s Disease and Raynaud’s Syndrome
Itching, burning, tingling or pain sensation may be associated with arterial spams caused by Raynaud’s disease or syndrome.
Itching of the hands is a feature of cold injury, also known as chilblains. Chilblains also causes pain and swelling in the fingers, nose, ears, and toes. Topical corticosteroid and heparin applications are used to treat chilblains. Aspirin and paracetamol may also be given to combat pain.
Acrodermatitis continua and arthropathic psoriasis are two rare conditions that can cause itching and rash in the hands.