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Treatment for itching

There are various treatments that can help with itching caused by cancer and its treatment. They aim to treat or soothe the itch.

Treating the cause of the itching

If you know what is causing your itching, the best treatment is one that gets rid of the cause. For example:

  • itching from jaundice caused by a blocked bile duct can be helped by unblocking the bile duct
  • itching from substances released by tumours can be relieved with treatment to shrink the tumour
  • itching from infection will be helped by treating the infection (antibiotics, antiviral drugs or antifungal drugs)

Treatment to soothe itching

There are some treatments that can help to soothe and relieve itching. Your doctor may need to try a few until you find one that works.

Antihistamines

Our immune system produces histamine to protect us from illness. Sometimes the body produces too much histamine, causing itching, redness and swelling. Antihistamines block the action of histamine in the body. They can help to reduce itching, but don't work for everyone. 

Your doctor can prescribe antihistamines. There are many different types and they may give you some relief. They tend not to work so well for itching caused by lymphoma or due to jaundice caused by a blocked bile duct.

Cholestyramine

If you have jaundice, a drug called cholestyramine can reduce itching. This drug binds with bile salts in the body tissue.

Anti-depressant medicines

Some types of anti-depressant medicines can help to reduce itching. They act like an antihistamine and also help you relax. They can work well for itching due to nerve irritation, such as peripheral neuropathy. Anti-depressants used for itching include amitriptyline, imipramine and paroxetine.

Steroids

Steroids can help. They come either as creams you put on to your skin or as tablets. You can buy low dose steroid cream over the counter from the chemist. But your doctor needs to prescribe the higher dose creams and the tablets. You usually only have steroids for a short time because they can cause side effects if you take them for too long.

Complementary therapies

Some people find that complementary therapies, such as music therapy, gentle foot massage, relaxation exercises or guided visualisation can help to distract them from the itching.

Last reviewed: 
19 Feb 2019
  • European guideline on chronic pruritus.
    Weisshaar E, Szepietowski JC, Darsow U and others.
    (2012) Acta Dermato Venerologica. 92 (5): 565-81

  • 100 Questions and Answers About Cancer Symptoms and Cancer Treatment Side Effects
    J F Kelvin and L Tyson
    Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2010
    ISBN 1449610676

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