Itchy skin – or ‘pruritus’ – is a condition that involves the body and the mind. Studies have shown that the more we scratch, the itchier we feel. In other words, the reciprocal relationship between our physiological and psychological drives seems to worsen pruritus.
To avoid becoming stuck in this itch-scratch cycle, you must treat the cause of your itchy feet. Read on to learn about 12 causes of very itchy feet, and how best to treat them.
Table of Contents:
- 1 Why Do Feet Become Itchy?
- 2 What Are the Causes of Hot and Itchy Feet?
Why Do Feet Become Itchy?
A variety of conditions are associated with itchy feet, so determining the cause of yours might seem challenging.
Chances are, your itchy feet can be explained by one of the following factors:
- Temporary Skin Reactions – Insect bites and allergic reactions may cause temporary rashes on the feet and ankles. These commonly occur when there is a change in environment.
- Long-Term Skin Conditions – Chronic skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis cause skin to become dry, flaky and inflamed. People with diabetes are also more likely to suffer chronic skin complaints, as we’ll explore.
- Hygiene Concerns – Not changing socks regularly and allowing feet to get very sweaty can lead to rashes and prickly skin.
- Infections – As we’ll explore, fungi and viruses in our environment can cause infections to develop on the feet and toenails. These conditions may cause a crawling, burning or itching sensation throughout the day and night.
- Hormonal Imbalances – We’ll discuss the reasons why pregnancy and the menopause cause tender and sensitive feet.
- Nerve Problems – The nerves in our body control sensation. If one or more of our nerves malfunctions, this can cause strange sensations in the feet.
- Kidney Problems – Red and itchy feet can occasionally signal kidney disease. We’ll outline the specific symptoms of itchiness that may indicate an underlying kidney problem.
- Stress –Stress is an indirect cause of itchy feet because it aggravates many of the conditions already mentioned. What’s more, stress can lead to compulsive scratching. Worryingly, compulsive scratching fuels feelings of itchiness and could encourage wounds to develop.
It’s important to intervene before wounds develop on the skin.
Why Do Symptoms Worsen at Night?
It’s common for itchy feet to get worse when we’re about to fall asleep. Why should this be? Firstly, cortisol is at its lowest in the evening. Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory hormone, so it helps dampen irritating sensations in the body. Cortisol spikes when we wake in the morning, so we’re likely to get some relief at this time of day.
Also, if we walk around a lot during the day, the pressure on our feet may counteract tingling or prickly sensations in our feet.
Finally, psychologists have found that, to a certain degree, itchiness is in the mind. A genuine skin reaction causes us to feel itchy, but the more we scratch, the itchier we feel. Why is this important? This itch-scratch cycle is worsened when we are unoccupied (i.e. when we are trying to fall asleep)!
Why Do Feet Get Dry?
When feet are itchy, they’re usually dry too. Dry and cracked heels are very common and are associated with foot pruritus.
Risk factors for developing very dry feet include:
- Zinc Deficiency – Zinc helps skin cells to regenerate and promotes healing. A healthy varied diet will provide enough zinc, though many people are thought to be deficient in this mineral. A zinc deficiency is likely to cause Xerosis (dry and rough skin).
- Being Overweight – Carrying extra weight often causes the heels to become dry, cracked and itchy.
- Aging – As we get older, our skin loses its ability to retain moisture. This can cause the heels and soles of the feet to become dry and hardened.
- Wearing Sandals – If you wear sandals daily, the skin on your feet may become parched. If the skin on the feet gets sunburnt, it may flake and peel.
- Overexposure to Water – Washing the feet too much (or failing to dry them thoroughly) can make skin dehydrated. Skin that is dehydrated is much more likely to feel tight, tingly and uncomfortable.
- Genetics – Dry skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema run in families – though environmental factors do play a role too.
- Stress – Stress and anxiety are closely associated with dry skin.
Promoting supple and healthy skin is an excellent line of defense against itchy feet.
How to Cure Itchy Feet
There are various treatments available for this condition. You’ll need to take at least one of the following actions:
- Wear moisture-wicking socks
- Eliminate allergens
- Apply creams and lotions with active ingredients
- Use essential oils
- Treat any wounds
- Modify your lifestyle
- Improve foot hygiene
- Tackle stress and anxiety
- Correct nutritional deficiencies
- Potentially seek a diagnosis
Depending on the exact cause of your itchiness, some recommendations may be more relevant than others. Below we’ll explore each cause in depth and suggest the most appropriate form of treatment.
What Are the Causes of Hot and Itchy Feet?
Allergens and Irritants
The simplest explanations should always be ruled out first. Consider whether you’ve had an allergic reaction or developed ‘contact dermatitis.’ Allergic reactions occur when we come into contact with substances such as pollen, dust mites or certain food products.
Allergic responses are unique to an individual, and it’s possible to be allergic to almost any substance. People with allergies are also more likely to develop eczema (dry, flaky, itchy skin).
‘Contact dermatitis’ is a type of eczema caused by a reaction to an allergen or an irritant. Irritants are all around us, and they’re found in many products we use on our feet.
Known irritants include:
- Latex – found in household gloves and ‘foot protectors’ at swimming pools.
- Ethyl alcohol and Parabens – Found in some foot creams
- Fragrances – found in the laundry detergent you use to wash your socks, and bath products
- Diethanolamine – Also found in many cleaning and laundry products
- Tosylamide formaldehyde resin – Found in some nail varnishes.
- Peroxide – Found in many cleaning products – including floor cleaner
Have you recently switched your laundry detergent? Or perhaps tried a new bath soak? If so, this could explain your itchy feet. Alternatively, perhaps you’ve eaten a new food that you’re allergic to. If you’re experiencing itchiness all over the body and not just the feet, this suggests that a food allergy might be the culprit.
Some people find it useful to keep a food diary to keep track of any potential allergies. If you’re unable to locate the allergen or irritant yourself, professional testing is an option.
If you think you’re allergic to a household or beauty product, replace it with a chemical-free version. If you eradicate the allergen or irritant that’s causing your problems, the itchiness should clear in a week or two.
In the meantime, you should try to moisturize the skin as much as possible. Over-the-counter emollient creams are a good option, especially those containing menthol or zinc oxide. If the itching is unbearable, your doctor may prescribe a topical steroid cream or an oral corticosteroid.
Prickly Heat Rash
Prickly heat, or ‘miliaria rubra’ is a fairly common rash that can develop anywhere on the body – including the feet. It usually occurs in very hot environments, though some people develop it during the winter months.
- Tiny red bumps or spots (blocked sweat glands)
- Stinging and burning
Children are most likely to develop this condition because their sweat glands are still developing. However, it can develop in adults too. Poor hygiene can contribute towards this condition. If your feet tend to get sweaty, perhaps due to immobility or a hot climate, you may have developed a prickly heat rash.
Also, sunburn can cause the skin to become very dry, tight and itchy. Sunburn and a prickly heat rash sometimes occur together.
A prickly heat rash will usually resolve on its own, but it can take a couple of weeks.
To get immediate relief, make sure you stay cool. Staying out of the sun and avoiding sweating will prevent more bumps emerging. You could apply a cold compress to your feet to help cool the skin, but don’t leave it on for longer than 30 minutes.
Keep the skin clean with cold or tepid showers, but don’t over wash your skin. When you’re at home, try not to wear socks, so your skin has a chance to breathe. A calamine lotion or a cream containing menthol well help soothe the skin and prevent the urge to itch.
Athletes foot – or tinea pedis – is an infection caused by an overgrowth of fungi. Fungi proliferate in warm, moist environments such as swimming pool changing areas. As such, walking barefoot in communal areas can often cause this condition. Other causes of athlete’s foot include not changing shoes and socks regularly, and not drying the feet correctly.
Itchy and inflamed skin is one of the first signs of athlete’s foot. Thankfully, there are many treatments for athlete’s foot. If you have any of the following symptoms, along with itching, it’s likely you’re dealing with athlete’s foot.
- White, flaky patches between the toes
- Sore, inflamed patches on the ball of the foot
- Cracked skin that sometimes bleeds
- Macerated or blistered skin
- An unpleasant smell coming from the feet
If you have developed this condition, it’s important to intervene quickly to prevent a fungal nail infection taking hold. Try an over-the-counter spray or cream for athlete’s foot. It’s vital to keep your feet clean, but do not over wash your feet, as this could make things worse.
Fungal foot infections take at least a few weeks to respond to treatment. In the meantime, you can apply a light calamine lotion to clean, dry skin to help prevent itching.
Also, consider using essential oils to calm the skin. A study published on Wiley Online found that tea tree oil is highly effective at reducing the symptoms of athlete’s foot (i.e., scaling, inflammation, itching, and burning).
Try blending a couple of drops of tea tree oil with a carrier oil (jojoba oil or coconut oil) and apply to the soles of the feet for at least twenty minutes. This treatment should reduce the irritation, and may even help cure the athlete’s foot faster because tea-tree oil is thought to have anti-fungal properties.
However, if there are open wounds or deep cracks on the feet, it’s best not to apply essential oils. In this case, stick to a light calamine lotion. Clean the wounds regularly and apply a bandage for protection.
Verrucas are small overgrowths of skin that are caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). They can cause a burning or tingling sensation in the foot, especially if they are aggravated by socks or footwear.
Once HPV has been contracted, it enters the skin and causes cells to divide. It could take weeks for the hardened lump of skin (the verruca) to develop on the surface of the skin. As such, the itchiness you’re feeling could signal the early stages of a verruca. If the itch feels very ‘deep’ inside the skin, this suggests a verruca may be developing.
If one does develop, there are many forms of verruca treatment available to dissolve the excess skin and eradicate any itchiness.
If you develop a verruca, you must resist scratching the area – as this will cause the virus to spread. If it’s very itchy at night, try putting a plaster or bandage over the area to remind you not to pick.
Verrucas respond best to early interventions, so if you feel one developing – try an over-the-counter topical solution to stop the overgrowth.
Bug bites can cause us to itch furiously. Whether it’s fleas, ants, ticks, mosquitos, spiders or bees – there’s something in our environment that’s ready to bite. Bug bites often look small and inconspicuous on the skin. But don’t be fooled, a tiny flea bite can trigger hours of itching and scratching.
It’s common to get insect bites on the tops and sides of the feet because these areas are often exposed in hot weather. Most insect bites are harmless, and the symptoms die-down within a couple of days.
However, if you’re mildly allergic to the venom in the bite, symptoms could linger for a couple of weeks. In rare cases, people may suffer a severe allergic reaction to an insect bite. If you experience shortness of breath, wheezing or dizziness after an insect bite, you should see a doctor immediately.
If you’re looking for immediate relief, it’s best to wash the feet thoroughly and apply an ice pack. This will reduce any swelling and help to numb the burn. Try your very best not to scratch the area, as you may break the skin. If possible, raise your foot above the heart as this will reduce inflammation.
If the itching doesn’t subside, try applying calamine lotion or a menthol-based anti-itch cream. Antihistamines may also be helpful, but these are not suitable for everyone. If you want to protect against insect bites in the future, apply a repellant that contains at least 50% DEET (diethyltoluamide), and always protect your feet when you’re outside.
Unfortunately, stress can interact with almost any medical condition to make it ten times worse. Although you may believe your feet are very itchy, the itchiness may be worsened by your constant picking and scratching. For some people, skin picking is a maladaptive form of ‘stress relief.’
Although compulsive skin pickers are more likely to target the hands or the scalp, they may focus on the feet too (because these can be easily hidden). Some people find themselves picking because it distracts them from their worries. The problem is, compulsive picking often causes wounds and scabs to develop on the skin. This makes itching, scratching and discomfort even more likely!
In the short term, it’s important to cover your feet and keep any wounds clean. If you find yourself picking at night time, try wearing some socks to bed, so you’re not tempted to pick at your feet. If there are any open wounds or scabs on your feet, be sure to bandage these. If you really can’t resist the urge to pick, try tapping or patting the feet rather than scratching.
In the long term, it’s important to manage stress effectively. More than anything, skin picking is a habit we develop in response to feeling stressed. Even if you can’t completely eradicate stress, you can try to develop new healthier habits to occupy your hands.
Finally, studies have shown that compulsive skin pickers benefit from self-massage. If you regularly pick or scratch your feet, try massaging the feet instead. This will enable you to develop a healthier relationship with your skin. It will also help to break the scratch-itch cycle.
Peripheral neuropathy occurs when there is damage to the nerves in the hands, arms, legs, and feet. Nerves send chemical signals around our body, so they are crucial for modulating sensation. As such, it’s no surprise that nerve damage could lead to prickly or itchy feet. Symptoms of this condition are often felt strongest in the feet.
- Tingling in the feet, that may lead to itchiness
- Muscle weakness
- A loss of balance
- A prickly sensation across the foot, accompanied by some numbness (i.e. pins and needles)
- Dry and ulcerated skin
This condition is commonly caused by diabetes, but it can also be caused by injury and trauma. Peripheral neuropathy differs from a trapped nerve. Nonetheless, a trapped nerve may also cause a prickly sensation in the foot. Trapped nerves are caused by injury or poor posture. If you are worried about trapped or damaged nerves, it’s important to see a health professional.
If you suspect peripheral neuropathy, see your doctor. They will be able to prescribe you with an alternative form of pain relief because conventional pain medication is rarely helpful for this condition. Depending on the underlying cause, peripheral neuropathy is usually treatable. In any case, adverse sensations in the skin can be managed.
One of the issues with nerve damage is that it can prevent you from discerning ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ sensations effectively. As such, you should avoid applying hot or cold compresses directly to the feet.
If you suspect a trapped nerve, visiting a chiropodist would be a good option. If the trapped nerve has been caused by exercise or injury, rest and elevation may be enough to release the nerve and correct any strange sensations in the foot.
According to the American Diabetes Association, individuals with diabetes are more likely to develop bacterial and fungal foot infections, blisters, legs cramps, and nerve damage. As such, diabetes patients should always visit the doctor if they experience new sensations in their feet.
People who are diabetic (or pre-diabetic) are more likely to have poor circulation. Optimum blood circulation helps to keep the skin supple and free of irritations. Poor blood circulation is the reason why diabetic people tend to have dry skin on their feet and ankles. If poor circulation is the cause of your discomfort, the itchiest area will be your ankles.
If you do experience itching, it’s important to see a doctor. People with diabetes should not use any over-the-counter medicine for foot complaints such as athlete’s foot or verrucas.
Regular, gentle exercise and smoking cessation can improve blood circulation, which should reduce inflammation and itching in the ankles. According to a recent study, diabetes sufferers who exercised regularly for six months decreased their ABPI score by 20%. The ABPI score is the ratio of blood pressure at the ankle compared to blood pressure at the arm. Primarily, this study found that people who exercised more reduced their blood pressure and improved their circulation.
Very rarely, a deep itch on the bottom of the foot can signal kidney problems. Kidney problems can go undetected for a long time, and itchy skin may be one of the first signs. It’s worth noting that itchy skin caused by kidney issues usually occurs all over the body, and not just on the feet. Accompanying symptoms of kidney disease include:
- Extreme tiredness
- Muscle cramps
- Swollen ankles
- Weight loss
- Blood in the urine
Chronic kidney disease is relatively rare in the general population. Nonetheless, it is essential to be aware of the symptoms. If you suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure or polycystic ovary syndrome, you’re at a higher risk of developing kidney disease.
If you suspect kidney disease, your doctor will be able to diagnose this with blood and urine tests. Depending on the severity of the condition, it is treated with lifestyle changes, medication, or dialysis. Kidney problems only develop into kidney disease in about 1 in 50 cases.
If there weren’t enough complaints to deal with during pregnancy! Itchy skin affects up to half of all women during pregnancy, though the irritation is usually quite mild. If you’ve been itching furiously during pregnancy, this might signify a deeper underlying concern.
During pregnancy, the chemical structure of blood changes. A rise in certain chemicals is thought to make the skin more sensitive. Moreover, pregnant women are more likely to get hot and sweaty. When these symptoms are combined with ankle swelling (another common symptom of late-stage pregnancy), it’s no wonder the feet feel tender.
Itching caused by pregnancy is distinguishable from other causes (such as insect bites and prickly heat) because there will generally be no rash. In fact, many pregnant women experience itchy toes without a rash.
If you experience severe itching on the feet during pregnancy, it’s important to inform your doctor. Around 1 in 140 pregnant women experience a condition called intrahepatic cholestasis. This is a liver condition that causes intense itching. It is more common in South American and South Asian women but can occur in all populations.
There are some simple steps you can take to stay cool and comfortable during pregnancy. For example:
- Avoid socks or nightwear made from synthetic fabrics.
- Take a cool shower and apply calamine lotion, or a zinc oxide moisturizer.
- The skin is extra sensitive during pregnancy so resist using perfumed products on your feet and skip the pedicure.
- If you feel the urge to scratch your feet, try patting them until the itching sensation disappears.
If you’ve been itching furiously during pregnancy, it’s important to let your doctor know so that they can rule out intrahepatic cholestasis.
Hormone changes during the menopause can cause feet to feel sore and itchy. Unfortunately, symptoms tend to get worse at night, so sleep is often interrupted.
Estrogen helps the skin to stay moisturized and supple. During the menopause, estrogen levels plummet, which can leave the skin feeling dehydrated. Moreover, some women develop testosterone dominance, so struggle to regulate their body temperature. This can result in sweaty, clammy feet.
Studies have shown that women who eat a plant-rich diet and exercise regularly, are less likely to be affected by menopause symptoms.
If your feet are getting a lot sweatier in the daytime, try wearing moisture-wicking socks to control the itch. Socks made of bamboo and merino wool are good options. If your feet get sweaty at night, try applying a cold compress for 20 minutes before bed. If you find yourself itching regularly, apply a menthol cream to the feet and ankles.
If you’ve been itching away at the dry and flaky skin, you could be dealing with a case of psoriasis. If your toenails have felt itchy too, this is an indicator of psoriasis.
This condition occurs when skin cells are replaced too quickly. Underdeveloped skin cells are white and scaly and tend to ‘peel’ away from the skin. There will also be patches of inflamed, red skin. Scientists do not fully understand this condition, but they know it is related to poor immune function. For this reason, stress and hormonal changes can aggravate psoriasis.
If you suspect psoriasis, it’s best to obtain a formal diagnosis so that you can acquire a prescription cream. Prescription creams contain dithranol, coal tar or vitamin D to control inflammation.
Also, your doctor will advise you to practice good hygiene and ensure the skin is hydrated. Most importantly, try to reduce stress to prevent a flare-up.
How to Bathe Itchy Feet
When you’ve got itchy feet, it is important to keep the feet clean. However, you must not dehydrate the skin through over washing. To bathe itchy feet effectively, follow these tips.
- Wash the feet in cool or tepid water
- Use a chemical-free soap, or a mixture of coconut oil and tea tree oil, to remove any dirt
- Pat the feet until they are completely dry – but avoid ‘rubbing’
- Always use your own towel
- Apply an anti-itch cream – calamine lotion, menthol cream or zinc oxide cream.
- Wear moisture-wicking socks to prevent sweaty feet and stop you scratching
These steps should be followed in conjunction with any formal treatments such as those for athlete’s food, verrucas, or eczema.
As mentioned, stress can interact with many conditions to amplify feelings of itchiness. Once you’ve chosen a suitable topical treatment, be sure to manage your stress levels, too. This will break the itch-scratch cycle and prevent any wounds from developing on the feet.