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This patient summary on pruritus is adapted from a summary written for health professionals by cancer experts. This and other credible information about cancer treatment, screening, prevention, supportive care, and ongoing clinical trials is available from the National Cancer Institute. Pruritus (itching) is a side effect of some cancer therapies and may be a symptom of some types of cancers. This brief summary describes pruritus, its causes and treatment.
This summary is about pruritus in adults with cancer.
Pruritus is an itching sensation that triggers the desire to scratch. It is a distressing symptom that can cause discomfort. Scratching may cause breaks in the skin that may result in infection. Pruritus can be related to anything from dry skin to undiagnosed cancer. It can occur in people who have cancer or in those who have received cancer treatment.
Pruritus may occur in some people with cancer but not in others. However, the following persons with cancer may be at a higher risk for developing pruritus:
Drugs given at any time during cancer treatment may cause pruritus. Itching may be caused by sensitivity to the drug, or the drug may interfere with normal nerve function.
Pruritus can be a symptom of infection. The infection may or may not be related to cancer treatment. Infections involving itching may be caused by a tumor, fungus, discharge from a wound, or drainage after surgery.
Pruritus is a symptom, not a diagnosis or disease. If you feel itching, let your doctor know. The doctor will ask for your medical history and give you a thorough physical examination. This assessment will enable the doctor to discover the problem that is causing the itching and find the best treatment for it.
Maintaining healthy skin may relieve pruritus. Good skin care includes adequate nutrition and daily fluid intake, protection from the environment, and cleansing practices that don't dry the skin.
Some specific factors that may relieve itching are the following:
In addition to the skin-care factors, medications applied to the skin or taken by mouth may be necessary to treat pruritus. Antibiotics may relieve itching caused by infection. Antihistamines may be useful in some cases of pruritus. Sedatives, tranquilizers, and antidepressants may be useful treatments. Aspirin seems to have reduced itching in some patients but increases it for others. Aspirin combined with cimetidine may be effective for patients with Hodgkin lymphoma or polycythemia vera.
Interrupting the itch-scratch-itch cycle, an increase in itching that can result from the process of scratching, may also help to alleviate pruritus. The cycle may be broken by applying a cool washcloth or ice over the affected area. Rubbing the skin and applying pressure or vibration to the skin may also help. Other methods that may be useful in relieving symptoms include distraction, music therapy, relaxation, and imagery techniques.
The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.
Editorial changes were made to this summary.
If you have questions or comments about this summary, please send them to Cancer.gov through the Web site's Contact Form. We can respond only to email messages written in English.
For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., Eastern Time. A trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.
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PDQ is a comprehensive cancer database available on NCI's Web site.
PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.
PDQ contains cancer information summaries.
The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.
Images in the PDQ summaries are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use within the PDQ summaries only. Permission to use images outside the context of PDQ information must be obtained from the owner(s) and cannot be granted by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the illustrations in the PDQ summaries, along with many other cancer-related images, are available in Visuals Online, a collection of over 2,000 scientific images.
The PDQ cancer information summaries are developed by cancer experts and reviewed regularly.
Editorial Boards made up of experts in oncology and related specialties are responsible for writing and maintaining the cancer information summaries. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made as new information becomes available. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") indicates the time of the most recent change.
PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one method of treating symptoms is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. Some patients have symptoms caused by cancer treatment or by the cancer itself. During supportive care clinical trials, information is collected about how well new ways to treat symptoms of cancer work. The trials also study side effects of treatment and problems that come up during or after treatment. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients who have symptoms related to cancer treatment may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial.
Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at NCI's Web site. Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Last Revised: 2011-08-03
If you want to know more about cancer and how it is treated, or if you wish to know about clinical trials for your type of cancer, you can call the NCI's Cancer Information Service at 1-800-422-6237, toll free. A trained information specialist can talk with you and answer your questions.
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