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Is an itch more than skin deep?

It isn't your imagination, itching is contagious.

It can be 'caught' just by watching someone else having a good scratch, scientists have confirmed, much like yawning. And it's not just a visual contagion-- a whole room of people can begin scratching at the mere mention of fleas or lice.

The phenomenon, known as 'itch transmission', has been studied by dermatologists at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina. The researchers asked 25 volunteers to watch a series of video clips that either showed people scratching their left forearm or sitting idly. At the same time, they were either given a solution of histamine to induce itching on a patch of their skin or a few drops of harmless salt solution.

The volunteers tended to scratch twice as much when watching someone else scratching compared to watching the video of the person doing nothing. The scientists also found that even when the histamine liquid was used, volunteers tended to scratch other points of their body.

The conclusion is that if you see someone scratching their nose, then the chances are you'll find yourself doing the exact same thing.

Similar work in primates has also shown that monkeys can catch itches, too, and the researchers now believe contagious itching may be rooted in our evolutionary past as we evolved to live in close-knit social groups. Growing sensitive to itching when one member of the group is scratching could help to identify parasite infestations early and help to stop them spreading.


Meanwhile, LeAnn Rimes will be glad to learn that scientists are now hoping to use their findings to develop new ways of treating people who suffer from itchy ailments. The top-selling singer cuts an amazing figure on stage and in front of cameras, but what many don’t realise is that underneath her make-up she suffers from the incurable skin disease, eczema.

Scientists believe itching is contagious because the brain becomes hypersensitive when someone nearby scratches and misinterprets any kind of physical sensation on our skin as an itch.

Dr Gil Yosipovitch, who led the research which is published online in the British Journal of Dermatology, said: "Although it's a well-known sensation and dermatologists often feel itchy after seeing their patients scratch, contagious itch has not been studied systematically at all.

"Our results suggest there must be a central brain mechanism responsible for the generation of the itch sensation in the absence of itch stimuli. It appears that there is low threshold for 'feeling an itch' when this suggestion appears in a visual form, or even by simply thinking or reading about it."

It appears that there is low threshold for ‘feeling an itch' when this suggestion appears in a visual form, or even by simply thinking or reading about it.”


Dr Alexandru Papoiu, another of the researchers behind the study, said it appeared the mechanisms that create the sensation of itching was working “overtime” in these volunteers.

He added: "If we can understand the underlying mechanism and its cause, we should have a better chance to treat itch, targeting the central nervous system stations involved."

Nina Goad, from the British Association of Dermatologists, said the study showed how much influence the mind could have on physical sensations. She said: "This is a fascinating study looking at the power of the mind over a very physical sensation like itch.

"Many people can identify with the idea that watching other people scratch an itch leads you to feel the itch sensation yourself. To see this demonstrated in a clinical setting, with a view to developing treatments for common skin diseases like eczema that cause itch, is very interesting."

Yet should you discover that you do indeed have an itch, and that it is not caused by watching a friend of colleague having a good scratch, then there are some reliable and inexpensive ways to soothe an itch.

Olive oil can be applied to any rash, and its powerful moisturising properties should help relieve the itch.

Ice is great for many skin issues, and is a simple and effective itchy rash treatment.

Calamine Lotion has powerful moisturising and soothing properties, and is an effective itchy skin cure.