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Itching: Why scratching makes it worse

Whether after a mosquito bite or a nasty rash - our first reflex action is often to combat itching with scratching. This gives us short-term relief, but then the itching usually only gets worse. Researchers at Washington University have now discovered how this vicious circle develops - and how it can possibly be broken.

The cause of the problem is apparently the messenger substance serotonin. When we scratch ourselves, a slight pain occurs for a short time. The pain signal covers the itchiness - which is why rubbing the skin is so effective in the beginning. In response, the brain releases serotonin. However, this not only alleviates the pain you have inflicted, but also docks onto the nerve cells that are responsible for the itching. And that in turn makes it worse. The researchers came to this conclusion after a test with genetically modified mice that did not produce serotonin. If they injected them with a substance that usually causes itching, they scratched themselves less than mice, in which the neurotransmitter balance was still in order.

Since serotonin has many important functions in our body, it would not be a solution in humans to simply block the messenger substance. One starting point, however, could be the receptors on the nerve cells that process the itching. The scientists were also able to locate and paralyze these - with the result that the rodents then scratched less often. If this also works for humans, this could perhaps help patients who suffer from chronic itching.