Imagine, for a second, that you’re holding bags of groceries (or anything, really) in both hands, minding your own business, when all of a sudden a feeling hits you like a freight train right there on the tippy tip tip of your nose: A brain-melting, all-consuming, inexplicable itch.
Naturally, you absolutely HAVE to put everything down to scratch it — or demand a spouse/lover/friend/family member/complete stranger (okay, maybe not right now) scratch it — and as soon as you do, the itch goes away.
Or, maybe you’re sitting on the couch watching TV, and out of nowhere, that itchy feeling tickles the very back of your head, or the tip of your elbow, or your leg, or anywhere else on your body. Once it starts, you can’t think about anything else other than scratching it immediately.
You know the itchy feeling I’m talking about? Yeah, that one that you just scratched. It’s not an excessive impulse to itch — it’s just the occasional, random itch variety. What exactly is going on here?
“Through evolution, humans have developed certain mechanisms to understand what’s going on in their environment,” says Dr. Robert Brodell, Chairman of the Department of Dermatology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “For instance, if a little bug gets on your skin, our bodies have evolved over time to sense these tiniest things to be able to give them a swat before you get bitten. So it doesn’t take much to stimulate an itching sensation.”
That extreme sensitivity to very, very fine particles, naturally, leads to something else: False positives. “It can totally be psychological,” agrees Brodell. “The wind blows or whatever, and then all of a sudden your extremely sensitive skin thinks you have an itch, even though there’s nothing on you. That definitely happens.”
But occasionally, random itching could also be caused by something more serious, like shingles. “A virus like the one that causes shingles affects nerves, and can cause scarring around those nerves, i.e., postherpetic neuralgia. In that case, you have sensations that your brain has interpreted as being burning, itching, lancinating pain, but really the problem is the scarring or inflammation around the nerve.”
Don’t worry too much, though — if it’s seemingly random, it most likely falls in that first camp: All in your head. And if so, it’s probably nothing to worry about. But if it starts becoming a chronic problem, definitely see a doctor, because nothing sounds worse than an itch that can’t be scratched.