Why Does Scratching an Itch Feel Good?

From bug bites, to poison ivy, to allergies - why does scratching make these "itches" better?

You know the feeling. You’re sitting there in perfect comfort and contentment when, all of a sudden, the worst itch you could possibly imagine comes out of nowhere and leaves you squirming for relief. Before you even have time to think about it, your reflexes kick in, and you start scratching away. It feels good, but do you know why? We explain.

That squirmy-itchy feeling you get is caused by signals sent to your brain by tiny nerve endings. Scientists believe that approximately 5% of our nerves are wired to send these itch signals, which are received by the same part of the brain that controls our pain response reflexes. When we scratch, we cause ourselves minor pain, causing the brain to flood the area with pain-reducing chemicals that override the itch. For most incidental itches, this response is long enough.

Researchers suspect everyday itches actually evolved as a way to induce soft-skinned animals — including humans — to scratch. So, what’s the benefit to scratching?  When we scratch, we scrape off dead skin cells, allowing new skin to come to the surface. In this way, our skin regenerates itself, and remains healthy and protective.

A person itching their arm.
Scratching feels good because it causes the brain to release pain-reducing chemicals into the blood stream.

But there’s another kind of itch you’re probably familiar with. When we’re exposed to an allergen — such as poison ivy or the venom in a mosquito’s stinger — our bodies fight off the infection with a chemical called histamine. Because it causes our blood vessels to swell up around potentially harmful foreign substances that enter the body, histamine can makes us feel itchy.

As with other kinds of itches, scratching an itch caused by histamine can also feel good, but only temporarily. These types of itches are more long-lived than the other kind of itch, which makes people more likely to scratch them until the skin breaks. That’s why it’s not usually a good idea to scratch bites, rashes, and other kinds of long-term itches. Instead, an inexpensive over-the-counter antihistamine cream will usually do the trick.

Also, try our poison ivy soap (see below). It also works on browntail moth rash!

Poison Ivy Soap

If you happen to stumble into poison ivy, don’t fret. 

Our miraculous soap contains an ancient Native American remedy to stop the itch: jewelweed, plantain, and sweet fern!

It’s worth having some on hand.

Shop now.

Here are other natural itch cures.

Did you find this article helpful? Let us know in the comments below!

Farmers' Almanac - Itch
Jaime McLeod

Jaime McLeod is a longtime journalist who has written for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites, including MTV.com. She enjoys the outdoors, growing and eating organic food, and is interested in all aspects of natural wellness.

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Darrell L Cole

Why do I have an itch in the same spot on my back every day? I have a back scratcher but it doesn’t seem to help much. I know that an itch is a low grad pain since it has been shown it has the same beta waves on an EEG..

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