Itchy Armpit: Overview
An itchy armpit can be an irritating and sometimes disruptive condition. While not normally serious, the underarm region is unfortunately prone to dermatological conditions of one form or another.
This is in part due to how the armpit is a rather unique part of the body. While on the surface it appears little more than folds of skin and some hair, the armpit contains a large number of blood vessels, lymph nodes, and sweat glands.
The prevalence of blood vessels makes your underarm one of the warmest spots on your body, and the sweat glands ensure it is regularly damp. This combination makes your armpits an ideal location to develop a number of itchy and problematic conditions.
Causes and Symptoms of an Itchy Armpit
Although an itchy armpit is not an inherently uncommon symptom, it is one that can be caused by a surprisingly large number of triggers. By examining the armpit itself and looking at what else accompanies the itching, a better picture can be drawn of what the potential culprits are.
- Hygiene issues: As mentioned, the armpit is a warm, damp environment and the sort of place bacteria love to grow in. If you have poor personal hygiene, bacteria will multiply and irritate the skin.
- Candida infection: Candida is a type of yeast that is actually rather common within the body. You may have some in you right now, but your immune system is normally enough to take care of the problem. In cases where you experienced decreased immune function, the yeast can get out of hand and cause an overgrowth and rash. A candida outbreak is most common in moist areas like the mouth, groin, and armpits. The red rash can cause the skin to peel and is aggravated by tight clothing and warm temperatures.
- Miliaria rubra: Also known as a “heat rash”, this condition is caused by blocked sweat glands and typically presents itself with itchy underarms and red bumps. The affected area may “prickle” as well and the rash can spread over other parts of the body.
- Dermatitis: Also known as eczema, this inflammation of the skin causes redness, itching, scaling, and blisters. These patches of affected skin can burn, sting, or itch. Dermatitis is categorized based on the cause, but generally it happens because something is irritating the skin (contact or allergic dermatitis) or because the skin is overproducing oils (seborrheic dermatitis). Another common cause is when skin becomes extremely dry and cracked, often in the winter.
- Psoriasis: Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition characterized by the overgrowth of skin cells and the formation of abnormal patches of skin or lesions. One variant of the condition, inverse psoriasis, almost exclusively affects the folds of the skin. It can cause painful and/or itchy, dry, scaly, red, or white patches to form on the body.
- Hidradenitis suppurativa: An uncommon condition that is best imagined as a “reverse pimple”. It is characterized by hair follicles becoming blocked and inflamed, creating painful cysts under the skin that can open into abscesses or sores and leak pus even without bacteria being present. These wounds do not always heal and can actually form “tunnels” under the skin in extreme cases.
- Swollen lymph nodes: As mentioned near the beginning, the armpits have a large number of lymph nodes in them. If your body is fighting off an infection, the lymph nodes can swell to the point that they present irritation and itching.
- Deodorant: Antiperspirants and deodorants can be responsible for itching or painful armpits. Some of these products can clog sweat glands, trigger dermatitis reactions, or otherwise irritate the skin.
- Ingrown hair: If you shave your underarms, you may inadvertently cause an ingrown hair, which means that a strand of broken hair has been bent sideways and is growing back into the skin. This presents itself with a raised, red bump similar to a pimple and can cause itchiness and rash.
Treating Itchy Armpits
The first and most important thing to remember when dealing with an itchy armpit is to not scratch it. This will never solve the underlying problem and if you break the skin you will put yourself at risk of infection and further complications of the condition. With that out of the way, there are a few general measures you can take when confronted with an itching armpit.
- Stop shaving: Refrain from shaving the area at least until the symptoms clear up. Shaving can irritate the skin further and may be what caused the problem in the first place.
- Stay clean: Regularly wash the area with mild soap and water.
- Avoid deodorant: If your armpits show signs of irritation or dermatitis, you may want to consider temporarily stopping or switching to a different, milder brand of deodorant to see if that makes a difference. Generally speaking, roll-on deodorants are less irritating than sprays.
- Hot compresses: A moist, hot compress can be applied gently to the area to promote drainage of fluid and/or pus buildup.
- Apply soothers: Aloe vera, tea tree oil, calamine lotion, oatmeal or Epsom salts baths can help relax the area and ease the itching.
If you or your doctor has identified the underlying cause of the itchiness, you can also employ more targeted measures:
- Ingrown hairs can be plucked out with tweezers.
- Heat rash and psoriasis can be managed with calamine lotion or hydrocortisone creams.
- Candida is best dealt with using oral or topical antifungal medications.
- Hidradenitis suppurativa may be lessened with use of antibiotic creams or in extreme cases surgery.
- If you have dermatitis, track down what the trigger is.
When to See a Doctor
In rare cases, an itchy underarm can actually be a signal of a serious underlying problem. If the itchiness presents with chills, fever, joint pain, stiffness, breathing difficulties, swelling on the mouth or face, or altered consciousness, seek medical attention immediately.
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Sources for Today’s Article:
“Hidradenitis Suppurativa,” Mayo Clinic web site, April 9, 2013; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hidradenitis-suppurativa/basics/definition/con-20027334.
“Itchy Armpits: Causes and Treatments,” MD-Health.com, http://www.md-health.com/Itchy-Armpits.html, last accessed November 30, 2015.
“Itchy Underarms,” Enki Village web site, http://www.enkivillage.com/itchy-underarms.html, last accessed November 30, 2015.