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The Itchy Truth

Have you ever stopped to wonder, mid-scratch, exactly why scratching is so effective against itching? Learn more on this Moment of Science.

Mosquito bites on leg

Photo: iampeas (flickr)

Scratching mosquito bites like these can trick your brain because only one stimulus can be felt in a given area on the body

When you have an itch, you scratch it. What could be more simple than that?

Scratching itches is one of our most basic instincts, one which we share with many other animals. Have you ever stopped to wonder, mid-scratch, exactly why scratching is so effective against itching?

On the most basic level, scratching is a way to remove whatever irritant might be causing the itch in the first place. If an insect is biting you, or you have a patch of dead skin, scratching has a good chance of getting rid of it. In this case, it’s pretty obvious why the scratching works.

Much of the time we scratch, however, it seems to be somewhat after the fact.

Perhaps the mosquito has already bitten us and flown away, and we are left scratching at the swelling bite. Clearly this won’t get rid of the mosquito. Is there a reason for this kind of scratching, or is this just an over-zealous instinct that doesn’t realize it’s too late?

Actually, this kind of scratching can serve two additional functions.

First, it can stimulate the irritated tissues and cause extra blood to flow to them, helping your immune system remove whatever itchy substances might be below your skin.

Second, it can trick your brain into ignoring the annoying itch. Your nervous system can generally process only one stimulus from a given area of your skin at a time. If you scratch at an area that itches, this new, greater stimulus can override the itching, effectively blocking it out.

  • *Lainy Samuels*

    Holy moly, not food, not sex, not anything is more satisfying than ripping open a super itchy mosquito bite. The tearing away of the swollen wheal into an oozing mess is fantastic beyond description. And the film from touching whatever on the finger tips that creates a sting on the ripped open flesh is a feeling that I crave. It’s like an animal instinct to get this feeling. Then after a few days when a scab has formed I love tearing it off and letting the wound bleed down my leg or arm. Feel the immune system work overtime battling whatever has entered the wound…

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