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Got the itch? Nonstop itching as bad as chronic pain, study shows

Itch a little, and it's a bother. Itch a lot, and it can be a nightmare. And not just for you: Your family and friends may suffer too, even your parishioners.

Just ask the Rev. Kathy Morris, a United Methodist minister in Atlanta. A longtime sufferer of psoriasis, endless itching used to keep her up at night and turn her into a "grouchy pastor" during the day. "It takes a lot of your mental energy dealing with it, monitoring it and worrying," says the 39-year-old. She describes the feeling as "never-ending itching. You scratch until you bleed."

Now, a new study confirms what Morris already knows: chronic itch can be devastating. In fact, many sufferers say they'd be willing to accept a shorter lifespan in return for an instant cure. 

"They're pretty miserable; that's what it comes down to," says study lead author Dr. Suephy Chen, an associate professor of dermatology at Emory University School of Medicine. "If you've got a severe symptom like pain or itch, it significantly affects your life, and you're willing to give up part of your life not to have the problem."

But the rest of the world, including many doctors, doesn't pay much attention to itchers and itch itself. "I call it the Rodney Dangerfield of our profession," Chen says. "It really doesn't get a lot of respect. And in the research world, it's definitely underappreciated. There hasn't been a lot of research put into the basic understanding of itch, let alone the therapy."

For most people, itching is a common but minor and temporary inconvenience, the result of an insect bite or a scratchy suit like the one you had to wear for Easter when you were 10. But for other folks, an itch can be nothing short of permanent.

"I actually treat patients who have overall itch. They itch from head to toe," Chen says. (Just like you might be doing as you read this post: As we told you earlier this year, itching may be contagious. Sorry about that.)

Many medical conditions cause chronic itch, including the obvious (eczema, psoriasis) and the not-so-obvious (kidney failure, cancer). In some cases, the cause never becomes clear. "Most people like a reason," Chen says, "and when we can't give them one, that makes it that much harder to get them to feel better."

For the new study, Chen and colleagues interviewed about 70 patients with chronic itch and about 140 with chronic pain. The itchers said they'd be willing to shorten their lifespans by an average of 13 percent, akin to those suffering from similar levels of chronic pain. 

Chen said she hopes the study, which appears in the Archives of Dermatology, will focus more attention on chronic itch and spur researchers and pharmaceutical companies to act. Treatments for chronic itch include anti-itching lotions and drugs like antihistamines that calm the immune system. But in many cases, most of these don't work, and patients are stuck with no way out, she says.

The medical world "has put their attention on pain for 30-plus years," she says. "If we get a little bit of that brainpower and money for itch, we should help these people who are suffering."

After 12 years of suffering with psoriasis, Atlanta minister Morris finally found relief through an antihistamine that dampens her immune system, although she still has occasional outbreaks. If you've got an itching problem, she says, "you should find a doctor who takes it seriously. It can affect so many different areas of your life, but there is hopefully some hope."