Neurodermatitis

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is neurodermatitis?

Neurodermatitis, or lichen simplex chronicus, is a skin disorder in which the skin becomes irritated, causing chronic itching and uncontrollable scratching. More women than men have neurodermatitis, and it tends to affect people between 20 and 50 years of age.

The involved areas of skin are otherwise normal and healthy – the problem is not the skin but the itching. The cycle of itching and scratching causes the skin to thicken and become scaly. The challenge in treating neurodermatitis is to break this cycle. Cream-based prescription medications and over-the-counter anti-itch remedies can be helpful in easing neurodermatitis symptoms.

Once you have stopped scratching the affected area, the skin returns to a normal appearance, although this could take some time, depending on the severity of your neurodermatitis.

The itching and scratching of neurodermatitis can lead to skin damage and secondary bacterial infections, which rarely can spread to deeper tissues. Seek prompt medical care if you have signs of infection such as pus; fever; warmth, redness or swelling; or enlargement of lymph nodes.

Seek prompt medical careif you find that your normal routine is being interrupted, you are experiencing sleep loss, you have pain, or you have an infection because of scratching.

What are the symptoms of neurodermatitis?

Neurodermatitis symptoms include chronic itching and scratching of the skin, a thick and scaly appearance of the area you have been scratching, and redness, warmth or swelling of the affected area.

Common symptoms of neurodermatitis

You may experience neurodermatitis symptoms daily or just once in a while. At times, any of these neurodermatitis symptoms can be severe:

  • Itchy skin
  • Redness, warmth or swelling
  • Thick and scaly appearance on the skin

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

Seek immediate medical care if you, or someone you are with, have any of these serious symptoms due to chronic itching and scratching, or if you have signs of a spreading infection including:

  • Difficulty performing daily tasks
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fever
  • Inability to participate normally in activities
  • Open wounds from excessive scratching
  • Pus
  • Severe discomfort or pain

What causes neurodermatitis?

The precise cause of neurodermatitis is not known. An itch, which can be caused by anything (insect bite, environmental change, dry skin, or tight clothing), may trigger a cycle of itching and scratching. The skin becomes irritated, which leads to more itching and scratching. Stress can exacerbate neurodermatitis.

What are the risk factors for neurodermatitis?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing neurodermatitis. Not all people with risk factors will get neurodermatitis. Risk factors for neurodermatitis include:

How is neurodermatitis treated?

Neurodermatitis will not improve until the cycle of itching and scratching is disrupted. Your health care provider will design a treatment plan for controlling your neurodermatitis.

Treatments for long-term neurodermatitis control:

Long-term control medications are applied to the affected area or taken orally to control and prevent symptoms. Long-term control medications include:

Quick-relief neurodermatitis medications

Quick-relief medications treat acute symptoms and are generally available over the counter. Fast-acting neurodermatitis medications include:

  • Oral, nonprescription antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) may relieve severe itching

  • Over-the-counter anti-itch lotions or creams applied to the affected area may relieve itching

What you can do to improve your neurodermatitis

In addition to reducing your exposure to neurodermatitis triggers, you can also prevent or limit neurodermatitis by:

  • Bandaging the area to make scratching of it more difficult

  • Minimizing anxiety and stress

  • Reducing bathing and soap use (two to three times a week, only)

  • Trimming your nails short to minimize skin damage caused by scratching

  • Wearing non-irritating clothing such as smooth cotton fabrics

Complementary treatments

Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with neurodermatitis. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.

Complementary treatments may include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Hypnosis

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

What are the potential complications of neurodermatitis?

Chronic scratching of the same area of your skin can lead to an infection, discoloration of the area, or a permanent scar. In addition, you may lose sleep due to itching and scratching, which may affect your ability to participate in normal, daily activities.

Complications of untreated or poorly controlled neurodermatitis can be serious. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of neurodermatitis include:

  • Adverse effects of treatment for neurodermatitis
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Inability to participate normally in activities
  • Secondary bacterial infections of the skin
  • Severe discomfort or pain
  • Social isolation
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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 19
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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