There’s definitely something immensely pleasurable about scratching an itch. It’s a feeling that goes beyond humanity, too. There’s a reason animals get that gooey look in their eyes when you scratch them in just the right spot, or they get a good scratch going for themselves. Just take a look at the bear in our latest TV ad. But why is it that we all enjoy scratching an itch so much?
Why do we get itchy in the first place?
We’re with you – getting an itch is annoying! So, why do our bodies have this reflex in the first place? We get itchy when our skin is irritated in some way. While these days it mostly just winds us up, there’s more to it than that. The itchy sensation we feel is an evolutionary leftover from a time we needed it for our own protection. It’s just the same as how we’re sensitive to hot, cold, pain, and vibrations – it’s all to help us survive. For example, how would you know you’d stumbled into a patch of potentially lethal poison ivy if your skin didn’t tell you?
Of course, there are times when itchy skin is more than an inconvenience, and it can still be a symptom of serious illnesses and conditions. So, if in doubt about your itch, always take medical advice.
Why is it our instinct to scratch an itch?
Let’s get into some science. When you get an itch, this is because something that you’ve come into contact with has activated nerve endings in your skin. These fibres, called C fibres, relay signals relating to pain and itch back to your brain. Your brain then uses the signals it gets to work out where you’re itchy, how intense the itch is, and so on. When we scratch, our action sends pain signals down similar nerve fibres that are telling our brains about the itch. This distracts the brain from the itch, and gives us temporary relief. This applies whether you’re a human using your hands to scratch an itch, or an animal rubbing up against a tree – or, in the case of our bear, a camper van – to relieve your itch.
Sometimes, a quick scratch is enough to deal with an itch. Other times, though, the itch will come back. This is when you need to think about what it’s alerting you to, and whether you should seek out some medical advice.
Why does scratching an itch help you feel less stressed?
If the itchy sensation is annoying (which it is), then it stands to reason that scratching an itch should feel good and relieve stress. After all, you’re getting rid of the annoyance! But, scratching also causes pain, which we know feels bad. So what’s the deal?
The feeling of the itch and the pain of the scratch cause various chemicals to be released in our brains. These include endorphins, serotonin and dopamine, which are all associated with relieving pain and inducing feelings of pleasure. These chemicals also have an impact on our mood. In particular, the serotonin boost you get from scratching an itch can temporarily relieve anxious feelings that can leave you stressed.
On top of this, when somebody else scratches an itch for you, it comes with additional stress-relieving benefits. Having someone else scratch an itch you can’t quite reach prompts the release of oxytocin. Recent studies have revealed that oxytocin is an important chemical messenger signalling human behaviours like trust and person to person bonding. The release of oxytocin can help you feel more relaxed, and, erm, keep you regular…! We knew there was a reason monkeys love social grooming so much!
You can scratch an itch too much, though.
While there’s undoubtedly something to be said for having a good scratch when you need it, the relief can only be temporary, and you could do yourself more harm than good by scratching away. If the itch comes back, then it’s time to pop to the pharmacy or see your GP. Chronic itching can be a symptom of an underlying condition, and scratching that itch can become a compulsive behaviour that risks damaging your skin. As we said before, if in doubt about your itch, take medical advice.
When animals scratch themselves against objects like trees, or even camper vans, it’s not always about getting to a hard to reach itch. Many animals – including bears like the one in our advert – use scratching as a way to spread their scent. This marks their territory, and lets others know where they are. This is especially handy for generally solitary animals on the look out for a mate. Who knew?!