Why People Over 50 Suffer From Itchy Skin (unless they do this)

Dr. Janet Zand

April 17, 2020

 

 
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With everything focused on the pandemic, anyone with chronically itchy skin knows there’s something else demanding their attention.

Itchy skin is irritating. Getting dressed can be a nightmare. Even adjusting a blanket can trigger the itchiness.

Rather than noticing and enjoying pleasant sensations on your skin throughout your day, you’re constantly plagued by discomfort.

Itchy skin can be especially problematic this time of year – particularly for anyone over 50 years old. And it can be tough to solve.

Research indicates that most elderly people live with itchy skin. In fact, one study of volunteers ranging in age from 50 to 91 found that two-thirds of the group had medical concerns about the health of their skin. When the researchers looked just at the participants in their 80s, the proportion rose to 83%.

The subjects self-reported their concerns via a 33-item questionnaire. And when the researchers followed up by giving the participants skin exams, their findings confirmed the participants’ concerns. In fact, 64.7% of the group had at least one diagnosable skin abnormality.

Although the participants clearly knew their skin was unhealthy, few of them had discussed their concerns with a doctor. And when the researchers reviewed their personal care routines, they found some noticeable gaps in their habits. In particular, their bathing, shampooing, and nail care regimens had room for improvement. This was especially true for the participants who had reached their 80th birthdays.

This was a small study. But its findings are consistent with what a lot of elderly people report. As we get older, we often develop itchy skin. The reason is simply because our skin doesn’t hold moisture as well when it ages.

But having the right routines in place can help us keep the itching to a minimum so that we can continue to enjoy hugs from grandchildren, kneading loaves of bread, or even the sand between our toes.

What You Can Do Without a Doctor

Start with making sure you have a good basic routine in place. If you have a loved one who can no longer handle his or her own personal care routine, make sure his or her caregiver has good habits in place as well.

All the usual advice for avoiding dry skin applies, as dry skin can quickly become itchy skin. Make sure you’re bathing regularly with a gentle cleanser. Don’t use scorching hot water—this will rapidly dry out the skin. Lukewarm is a better choice. Follow up with a good moisturizer whenever you’ve bathed or washed your hands. As water evaporates from cleansed skin, it takes the moisture in the skin with it. Applying a lotion or moisturizer to damp skin helps lock that soothing moisture in.

Having dry, itchy skin as you age isn’t just annoying. It can be dangerous too. It can lead to cracking that lets bacteria into the body. Well-hydrated skin helps keep dangerous germs on the outside. And you don’t want to overtax your immune system by forcing it to constantly fight off bacterial invaders.

The skin’s moisture level depends heavily on a layer of lipids. These lipids help trap water in the skin. As we age, this layer may not work as effectively. When this starts to happen, you may need to replace the water in your skin more often with moisturizing products.

Chamomile extract, calendula extract, glycerin, and hyaluronic acid can all help soothe dry skin and attract and lock in moisture. Check your regular skincare products to see if they contain any of these ingredients. You may need to apply them more frequently.

If you have a loved one who needs help with bathing, make sure his or her caregiver is aware of the importance of regular moisturizing. This can be an easy step to forget if it’s not your own skin that’s itchy. Try leaving an extra bottle of moisturizer near sinks so that the caregiver can reapply after hand-washing. This is an easy step to do for yourself as well!

These basic habits will go a long way. But sometimes the itchiness is more than a basic lotion can handle. In that case, you’ll want to deploy some other strategies.

Help for Stubborn Cases

If the area that’s bothering you feels warm to the touch, try applying a cold pack. This can help numb the area and provide relief. Then you’ll need to heal the underlying issue with topical solutions.

We often associate dry, itchy skin with winter. But a remedy we associate with summer can be a good place to start.

Research has shown that aloe vera protects and maintains the integrity of the skin membrane at a cellular level. As you age, it’s easier to compromise that membrane. That can lead to water loss and skin that’s slow to heal from even seemingly minor injuries.

Aloe vera can help restore the skin. Even better, aloe vera pairs antioxidant capacities with antibacterial effects. In another study, the researchers found that aloe vera can inhibit the growth of a number of different strains of bacteria. This means that aloe vera can be helpful in fighting off infections, which is one reason it was effectively used for wound care long before the advent of modern medicine. And it’s especially good for older skin that’s more vulnerable to bugs.

Keep aloe vera in the fridge year-round. That way you always have it available – and it will be cool and refreshing on hot skin.

Aloe vera can help protect your skin from microscopic “bugs.” But if your skin is itchy from actual bug bites, try a topical anti-inflammatory like calamine lotion. Stopping the inflammatory response right away is key to keeping any disease the bug might have been carrying – and the itchiness – from spreading. And don’t scratch at the bite. Doing so will only make the inflammation worse.

If you’re providing care for a loved one who scratches his or her skin, try to keep their nails short. And of course, make sure to get rid of the source of the bug bites! Many older adults enjoy spending time outdoors, but they still need to protect their skin. Sunscreen is still a non-negotiable, and I’ve written about plenty natural options for bug repellant.

When to See a Doctor and Use Medication

If the itch is bad enough, you may need a topical over-the-counter steroid or antihistamine. Your dermatologist can give you some guidance on what to choose or write you a prescription, if necessary. Don’t be afraid to check in with your dermatologist! Itchy skin is common among older adults, but that doesn’t mean you just have to live with it. “Common” isn’t the same as “untreatable.” After all, vision loss is common among older adults too. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother with glasses!

If there isn’t an obvious external cause, you may need to consider whether the itchiness is coming from the inside out. Excessive cortisol can cause your skin to itch. And where does cortisol come from? That’s right: stress.

Many people expect their retirement years to be the most relaxed of their lives. But even jetting off to tropical beaches or exploring historical sites can come with their share of woes. Financial or family worries could also create more havoc that you expected. At this point, it may not take much to push you over the edge when an annoyance you’ve been battling your entire life pops up yet again.

If this sounds familiar, you may need to reprogram your reaction to stress. Try exercising or going for a walk. This will often help lessen stress hormones. If you prefer a more sedate activity, try meditation or taking deep breaths – taking only 8 deep consecutive breaths has been shown to improve relaxation and even lower your blood pressure.

If you or a loved one enjoys having gadgets, consider a smartwatch that provides guidance through deep breathing exercises. Just a few minutes a day can help your body reset and stop pumping out cortisol. There are also apps that provide daily meditation experiences such as Headspace, Calm, Aura, among others.

We often assume our declining health is something we just have to accept. But it isn’t! If your itchy skin becomes severe, please see a doctor. He or she can help. And take preventative steps today to maintain healthy skin by stashing several bottles of moisturizer around your home. You’ll be able to enjoy soft, healthy skin for years to come.

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