Diabetes can affect your skin in itchy ways. It can change your nervous system to sense itching you otherwise wouldn’t. How does this happen, and what can you do about it?
Itching should not be ignored. It can lead to excessive scratching, which can cause discomfort, pain, and infection.
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), the higher-than-normal blood sugar levels common in diabetes promote skin infections. The causes can be ordinary fungi, yeast, or bacterial rashes like anyone can get. Some other skin diseases only happen to people with diabetes or happen mostly to people with diabetes. These tend to have long names such as diabetic dermopathy and eruptive xanthomatosis.
WebMD says as many as one out of three people with diabetes will have some kind of skin condition. Diabetes increases skin dryness and damages circulation. “Localized itching can be caused by a yeast infection, dry skin, or poor circulation,” says WebMD. “When itching is caused by poor blood flow, you’ll likely feel it in your lower legs and feet.”
Diabetes can itch more than your skin. Diabetes.co.uk highlights genital yeast infections as a major problem in diabetes. This is because high glucose levels “provide ideal conditions for naturally present yeast to grow and diminishes the body’s ability to fight infection.” Diabetes can also deposit glucose in the urine, helping yeast to grow.
Other causes of genital itching include lice, scabies, herpes, various skin diseases, chemical irritants, and allergies. These can affect anyone, but may be felt more strongly in people with diabetes.
According to an article on Everyday Health, “diabetes affects the nervous system and alters the perception of sensation in the body.”
A piece by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRN, on Medical News Today reports, “A study of nearly 7,200 people with diabetes and 499 without diabetes found that itching was a common diabetes symptom. An estimated 11.3% of those with diabetes reported skin itching versus 2.9% of people without diabetes.”
The cause of increased diabetes itching may be nerve damage, or neuropathy. In neuropathy, writes Nall, “the body experiences high levels of cytokines. These are inflammatory substances that can lead to a person’s skin itching.”
What to do about itching?
In many cases, itching can be reduced by reducing blood sugar levels. If you itch when your sugar levels are high, it’s like an extra warning sign that others don’t have. Use it and see how you can modify diet or behavior to lower glucose levels, reduce inflammation, and stop the itching.
Itching can also be treated. The ADA suggests, “Limit how often you bathe, particularly when the humidity is low. Use mild soap with moisturizer and apply skin cream after bathing.”
WebMD suggests using lotion to keep your skin soft and moist. There are also home remedies such as a paste of oatmeal and water, or aloe vera gel.
Some people can reduce localized itching by meditation. Breathe in and out a few times to relax, then focus on the itchy place and breathe into it. Pay attention to it, and you may find the itch goes away. Works for me, sometimes.
When to see a doctor
If your breathing is affected, if itching goes on more than a week or if it doesn’t go away when your sugars are down, or if you have a rash that you haven’t seen before, consider seeing a dermatologist. Make sure to tell the doctor or nurse practitioner you have diabetes.
Want to learn more about diabetes and skin care? Read “Diabetes and Your Skin: Protecting Your Outermost Layer” and take our quiz, “How Much Do You Know About Skin Care?”