If you’re pregnant, you may have the telltale glow, and your hair may be fuller than ever — but there’s still another pregnancy symptom you may encounter: itchy skin. The horrible urge to scratch can creep up on you slowly, but surely. As you round the corner towards 40 weeks, scratching may become like your visits to the restroom — something you feel like you just can’t stop doing, no matter how much you try!
[Editor’s note: If itching becomes severe or intolerable, consult your doctor, as it may be a sign of an underlying condition.]
In hopes of soothing the itching, we consulted two experts, who broke down what’s causing that prickly feeling, when it’s something to see your doctor about, and the best ways to keep it all under control.
Why Your Skin Itches During Pregnancy
It’s a no-brainer, but as your pregnancy progresses, certain parts of your body will get bigger. It’s this expansion that gives your skin a hard time: When the skin stretches, there can be tearing of the dermal layer, which can cause itching, says Leena Nathan, MD, an OB/GYN at UCLA Health, in Westlake Village, CA. The itching is a response of the nerves in the skin to these changes.
If the skin stretches particularly quickly — due to rapid weight gain, for example — you may develop stretch marks (aka striae distensae), says Papri Sarkar, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in Boston. These can also itch. Plus, for those of you who have pre-existing itchy skin conditions, like eczema, these can also flare up more during pregnancy.
Alas, there’s no way to entirely prevent itchy skin, as it can occur regardless of how much weight you gain. For the most part, it isn’t a sign of anything serious; it’s just your body’s way of saying Yikes, I’m a little uncomfortable here! and passing on the message.
However, it’s possible that a more significant skin condition could be at play. There’s an issue that can occur during pregnancy called polymorphic eruption, or pruritic urticarial papules and plaques of pregnancy (PUPPP). According to Dr. Sarkar, this is an itchy rash that appears mostly surrounding stretch marks on the stomach during late pregnancy. It tends to occur during your first pregnancy, as well as on those carrying more than one, during which the skin stretches even more. While this condition can be quite itchy, thankfully, it’s not harmful to you or the baby.
Another disease that tends to present in the third trimester is called intrahepatic cholestasis, says Dr. Nathan. Most women who have this will experience intense itching, but no accompanying rash. The itching can occur anywhere on the body, but the most common location for severe itching is on the palms of the hands (a hallmark sign of the condition). In rare cases, the skin may also look jaundiced or yellow.
Because this condition can be dangerous to both the mom and the baby, it has to be monitored closely via blood work, which will check your liver function. In some cases, you may have to deliver the baby early to avoid further complications.
How to Treat Itchy Skin During Pregnancy
While there is no foolproof way to calm down irritated skin, you still have some options that will help you squelch the scratching. First and foremost, you need to keep your skin more hydrated than usual. Dry skin tends to be more itchy than a hydrated complexion, so slather yourself frequently with moisturizing lotions.
Seek out emollient ingredients that will seal in moisture: Dr. Nathan likes formulas that feature cocoa butter or coconut oil (such as Palmer’s® Cocoa Butter Formula Daily Skin Therapy, $5). Alternatively, Dr. Sarkar is partial to those with glycerin and shea butter, both of which can be found in the super rich La Roche-Posay® Lipikar® Balm ($20).
You should also take a close look at your regular routine, as some aspects could be exacerbating your skin’s sensitivity. For example, you’ll need to turn down the heat on your baths and showers. High temperatures can cause more itching; so when possible, take quicker, cooler showers and pat the skin dry. (Remember, notes Dr. Nathan: You’re not supposed to take super-hot baths while pregnant anyway.) To give bath time a boost, consider adding in products with colloidal oats, like Aveeno® Soothing Bath Treatment ($7), notes Dr. Sarkar. This ingredient is a natural humectant and works to keep skin hydrated.
Additionally, be mindful of the laundry detergent you use. While whatever you were using before pregnancy should be just fine, when in doubt, choose something that’s unscented. It’ll be less likely to cause irritation. Seventh Generation® Free & ClearTM; Laundry Detergent ($13) is free of potentially itch-causing fragrances, dyes, and artificial brighteners, and is formulated with 97 percent plant-based ingredients.
If you feel like your itching is out of control and you need relief from an over-the-counter steroid cream, such as hydrocortisone, check with your doctor before applying, says Dr. Sarkar. There are some studies out there that show that steroid use during pregnancy can correlate with a low birth weight, so discuss your options with your doctor to be safe.
Plus, if the itchiness is so bad that you find sleeping at night to be a challenge, Dr. Nathan notes you can consider taking diphenhydramine. However, don’t over-rely on it to the point that you don’t alert your doctor to a change or increase in the itching. (And, of course, check with your doctor before taking this or any other new meds.)
When You Should Worry About Your Itchy Skin During Pregnancy
Sometimes, itchiness is just itchiness, and if you scratch it, it’ll go away. (And if not, you should refer to the above suggestions.) However, if you notice that you have itching on the palms of your hands, if your skin looks yellow-tinged, or if you feel nauseous, call your doctor immediately. According to Dr. Sarkar, these are symptoms of cholestasis. That said, should you have a fever, headaches, and/or a significant rash that includes redness or blisters, you should see your obstetrician or dermatologist ASAP. These could be signs of more serious conditions. Ultimately, though, as we previously explained, itchy skin is generally not a worrisome side effect of pregnancy — just a frustrating one!
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