Neurodermatitis is a skin condition that starts with a patch of itchy skin. Scratching makes it even itchier. This itch-scratch cycle causes the affected skin to become thick and leathery. You may develop several itchy spots, typically on the neck, wrist, forearm, thigh or ankle.
Neurodermatitis — also known as lichen simplex chronicus — is not life-threatening or contagious. But the itching can be so intense or recurrent that it disrupts your sleep, sexual function and quality of life.
Breaking the itch-scratch cycle of neurodermatitis is challenging. Treatment success depends on resisting the urge to rub or scratch the affected areas. Over-the-counter and prescription creams can help ease the itching. You'll also need to identify and eliminate factors that may be aggravating the problem.
Signs and symptoms of neurodermatitis include:
- An itchy skin patch or patches
- Leathery or scaly texture on the affected areas
- A raised, rough patch or patches that are red or darker than the rest of your skin
The condition involves areas that can be reached for scratching — the head, neck, wrist, forearm, ankle, vulva, scrotum or anus. The itchiness, which can be intense, may come and go or be nonstop. You may scratch out of habit and while sleeping.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if:
- You catch yourself repeatedly scratching the same patch of skin
- The itch prevents you from sleeping or focusing on your daily routines
- Your skin becomes painful or looks infected
The exact cause of neurodermatitis isn't known. Sometimes neurodermatitis begins with something that simply rubs or irritates the skin, such as tight clothing or a bug bite. As you rub or scratch the area, it gets itchier. The more you scratch, the more it itches.
In some cases, neurodermatitis is associated with other skin conditions — such as dry skin, eczema or psoriasis. Stress and anxiety can trigger itching too.
Certain factors may affect your risk of neurodermatitis, including:
- Your sex and age. Women are more likely to develop neurodermatitis than are men. The condition is most common between ages 30 and 50.
- Other skin conditions. People with a personal or family history of dermatitis, eczema, psoriasis or similar skin conditions are more likely to develop neurodermatitis.
- Anxiety disorders. Anxiety and stress can trigger the itch associated with neurodermatitis.
Persistent scratching can lead to a wound, a bacterial skin infection, or permanent scars and changes in skin color. Scratching may also disrupt your sleep.
You may start by seeing your primary care physician. He or she may refer you to a doctor who specializes in skin conditions (dermatologist).
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
What you can do
Before your appointment make a list of:
- Symptoms you've been having and for how long
- Key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes
- All medications, vitamins and supplements you take, including the doses
- Questions to ask your doctor
For neurodermatitis, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What's the most likely cause of my itching?
- Are there other possible causes?
- Do I need any tests?
- Will the itching ever stop?
- What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
- What side effects can I expect from treatment?
- What are alternatives to the primary approach you're suggesting?
- How long will it take for my skin to return to normal?
- I have these other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, such as:
- Do your symptoms come and go, or are they fairly constant?
- What products do you use on your skin, including soaps, lotions and cosmetics?
- What steps have you taken to manage the itchiness?
- Have any of these measures helped?
- Have you been stressed or anxious lately?
- How much do your symptoms affect your quality of life, including your ability to sleep?
Your doctor may diagnose neurodermatitis by examining the affected skin and determining whether you've been itching and scratching. To rule out other causes, he or she may take a small sample of the affected skin (skin biopsy) for testing.
Treatment is aimed at controlling the itching, preventing scratching and addressing underlying causes.
- Anti-inflammatory medicated creams. If over-the-counter corticosteroid cream isn't helping, your doctor may prescribe a stronger version of this drug. A calcineurin inhibitor (tacrolimus) ointment may help if the vulva is involved.
- Corticosteroid injections. Your doctor may inject corticosteroids directly into the affected skin to help it heal.
- Anti-itch medications. Prescription antihistamines help relieve itching in many people with neurodermatitis. Some of these drugs may cause drowsiness and help with alleviating scratching while you sleep.
- Anti-anxiety drugs. Because anxiety and stress can trigger neurodermatitis, anti-anxiety drugs may help prevent the itchiness.
- Light therapy. Exposing the affected skin to particular types of light is sometimes helpful.
- Psychotherapy. Talking with a counselor can help you learn how your emotions and behaviors can fuel — or prevent — itching and scratching.
Further study is needed, but some small studies have reported success with the following treatments:
- Botulinum toxin (Botox) injection. This technique may reduce itching and clear up the rough skin patches.
- Aspirin solution. Applying a solution combining aspirin and dichloromethane has been effective for some people with neurodermatitis.
These self-care measures can help you manage neurodermatitis:
- Stop rubbing and scratching. The itching may be intense, but rubbing and scratching worsen the situation.
- Apply cool, wet compresses. These may soothe the skin and relieve the itch. Putting a cool, wet compress on the affected skin for a few minutes before you apply a medicated cream helps it soak into the skin.
- Try over-the-counter medications. Apply an anti-itch cream or lotion to the affected area. A hydrocortisone cream can temporarily relieve the itch. An oral antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl, others) can relieve severe itching and help you sleep. Some people have had success with capsaicin (kap-SAY-ih-sin) cream, but it may sting at first.
- Cover the affected area. Bandages or dressings can help protect the skin and prevent scratching. These may be especially useful if you scratch during your sleep.
- Keep your nails trimmed. Short nails may do less damage to the skin, especially if you tend to scratch while you're asleep.
- Take warm baths and moisturize your skin. Prepare your bath with warm — not hot — water. Sprinkle in baking soda, uncooked oatmeal or colloidal oatmeal (Aveeno, others). Use mild soaps without dyes or perfumes. After washing, apply unscented moisturizer to protect your skin.
- Avoid triggers. Notice what seems to bring on a recurrence and avoid it. For example, use stress management techniques and wear clothing that isn't itchy.