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Ten Tips to Relieve HCV-Related Itching

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Itching is a common symptom of Hepatitis C that goes underreported and undertreated. Instead of letting it drive you crazy, learn how home remedies and a physician’s prescription pad can help ease your itching.

An estimated 15 to 20 percent of people with chronic Hepatitis C experience the symptom of itching. Known clinically as pruritus, itching refers to the unpleasant sensation that causes the need to scratch. Whether localized to a specific region of the body, spread all over or relegated to the internal organs, pruritus is often guilty of plaguing those whose Hepatitis C has advanced to cirrhosis. Fortunately, there are many ways to reduce this potentially maddening symptom.

More About Pruritus

Pruritus and pain are closely related sensations, since the same nerves transmit the signals of discomfort to the brain. Known as the itch-scratch cycle, an area of skin that is scratched often becomes even itchier, leading to more scratching.

Experts believe pruritus in people with liver disease is due to the accumulation of poisons that have not been effectively filtered by a damaged liver. When liver damage impedes the flow of bile through the liver, bile acids and bilirubin get backed up in the blood. Besides causing jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), high bilirubin levels often cause pruritus.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), pruritus from an unknown cause is also considered to be due to toxins built up in the bloodstream. This accumulation of toxic substances generates heat. According to TCM, the sensation of itching is the body’s interpretation of excessive heat.

Pruritus can take on many different characteristics. Two of pruritus’ more troublesome complications include:

  • Itching that is worse at night and thus interferes with restful sleep.
  • Since simple scratching typically does not relieve it, some people risk skin infection and injury by scratching themselves with sharp objects.

Help for Pruritus

Because itching is such a nonspecific, seemingly innocuous event, many with Hepatitis C don’t bother discussing it with their physician. However, there are many interventions to help incessant itching. Since pruritus can be severe enough to interfere with daily activities, those with a severe case are encouraged to report their discomfort to a doctor.

If necessary, a physician can prescribe an appropriate medication to relieve the itching. Some of the drugs used for pruritus include:

  • Analgesics (pain-relievers) for neuropathic pain (gabapentin)
  • Antihistamines (Benadryl, Atarax)
  • Cholesterol lowering agents (Questran, Colestid)
  • Opiod antagonists (Narcan, Revia, Revex)
  • Antidepressants (Zoloft)

In addition, ten tips are listed below to reduce itching before you get in to see a doctor:

  1. Don’t Smoke – Not only does smoking reduce the effectiveness of Hepatitis C therapy, but it can also lead to Smoker’s Syndrome – characterized by episodes of facial flushing, warm palms and soles, throbbing headache, dizziness, lethargy, prickling sensation, joint pain and pruritus.
  2. Apply Cold Packs – Cold packs wrapped in a towel and placed over the skin cools heat and seems to relieve intense itching.
  3. Stay Hydrated – Drink sufficient amounts of water to keep the entire body hydrated. For more on water and liver disease, read How Much Water Does Your Liver Need?
  4. Avoid Soap – Use a non-soap cleanser such as Cetaphil or a similar substitute to prevent excessive drying of the skin.
  5. Take Milk Thistle – Since milk thistle protects liver cells from damage and aids in detoxification, this herb can help prevent the backup of toxins in the bloodstream.
  6. A Warm Shower – Because heat aggravates itching, make sure your bathing water’s temperature is not too hot.
  7. Dress Carefully – Whenever possible, wear loose fitting clothes made from natural fabrics that breathe. This prevents excess heat from being trapped against your skin.
  8. Moisturize – Apply moisturizing creams at least twice a day. For best results, use only non-perfumed, mild moisturizers.
  9. Don’t Scratch – So that you don’t engage the itch-scratch cycle and don’t cause damage to your skin, experiment with rubbing, vibration or applying pressure instead of scratching. Some people report good results from rubbing itchy areas with an ice cube.
  10. Oatmeal – Many get pruritus relief from taking a colloidal oatmeal bath. Colloidal oatmeal is still made from oats, but compared to breakfast oatmeal, colloidal oatmeal is ground very finely or even pulverized.

Those with Hepatitis C should be aware that feeling itchy could be a manifestation of the virus. Because it can be so disruptive, this symptom deserves attention. Besides discussing severe pruritus with your doctor, take advantage of the ten tips listed above to gain some respite from incessant itching.

References:

http://allergies.about.com/od/skinallergies/a/pruritus.htm, Itching, Daniel More, MD, Retrieved January 9, 2010, about.com, 2010.

http://www.hcvadvocate.org/hepatitis/factsheets_pdf/pruritus.pdf, Extrahepatic Manifestations: Pruritis (Itching), CD Mazoff, PhD, Retrieved January 9, 2010, Hepatitis C Support Project, 2010.

http://www.liverhealthtoday.org/viewarticle.cfm?aid=164, Pruritus in its most severe form can be debilitating, Geoff Drushel, Retrieved January 9, 2010, Liver Health Today, 2010.

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