• Pruritus can be described as an unpleasant cutaneous sensation which produces the desire to scratch
  • Pruritus is relatively uncommon in advanced disease but can be very unpleasant and difficult to treat
  • General non-pharmacologic treatment can be very helpful
  • Generalised itching (often the child repeatedly rubbing the nose-tip) due to opioids is more common in children than adults


(see Foreword)

  • History should include the times at which the itching occurs (whether continuous and whether at night or day) its nature (burning, itching, etc.), location and relevant medication history
  • Examination should include review of dryness of skin, possible presence of scabies, possible presence of jaundice


General Measures

  • Pruritus is often caused by dry skin, so a good first measure is a simple moisturiser cream
  • Keep patient cool and use cool clothing
  • Tepid (around 37°C) baths and showers (avoiding detergents), followed by gentle drying and application of moisturiser cream
  • Keep nails short (filed not cut)
  • Avoidance of alcohol and spicy foods

Topical Agents

  • Menthol 1% and camphor 1% compounded in aqueous cream can be used several times a day as needed

Cause Specific Therapy

  • Cholestasis
    • Use general measures (see above)
    • HI and H2 receptor blockers likely to be ineffective
    • Place biliary stent (if possible and if patient’s general condition warrants this)
    • The burden of investigation and treatment should always be weighed against the prognosis, the likely benefit of treatment and the patient’s wishes
    • Cholestyramine 4 g 1-6 times/day PO to a maximum of 36 g/day
  • Uraemia
    • Use general measures (see above)
    • HI and H2 receptor blockers likely to be ineffective
    • Capcaisin 0.025% or 0.075% cream applied 3-5 times daily is useful where there is localised pruritus. Do not apply to large body areas
  • Hodgkins Lymphoma
    • Use general measures (see above)
    • HI and H2 receptor blockers likely to be ineffective
    • Radiation or chemotherapy where appropriate
    • Corticosteroids e.g dexamethasone 4-8 mg daily
    • If ineffective, substitute cimetidine 400 mg bid PO or ranitidine 150 mg bid PO
  • Itch due to an opioid
    • Use general measures (see above)
    • HI and H2 receptor blockers likely to be ineffective
    • May be transitory lasting a few days
    • May be relieved by ‘switching opioids’
    • Paroxetine 5 mg/day PO to 20 mg/day can be helpful


  • Potential side effects of antihistamines may be agitation or confusion


  • Itching of the skin is present without obvious cause in over 50% of patients over 70 years
  • Itching associated with cholestasis often starts on palms and soles and the severity is unrelated to the level of bile acids in skin
  • H1 receptor blockers are useful in histamine based itch such as a drug reaction or urticaria
  • Ondansetron is helpful when spinal opioids cause itching
  • Antihistamine creams may cause a contact dermatitis
  • Lidocaine cream may cause a contact dermatitis and worsening of itching
  • Calamine cream may cause drying of the skin and worsening of the itching


  1. Twycross R, Greaves MW, Handwerker H, Jones EA, Libretto SE, Szepietowski JC et al. Itch: scratching more than the surface. QJM 2003;96(1):7-26.
  2. Zylicz Z, Twycross R, Jones A, editors. Pruritus in advanced disease. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2004.

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