A diagnostic approach to pruritus

Brian V. Reamy, Christopher W. Bunt, Stacy Fletcher

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Pruritus can be a symptom of a distinct dermatologic condition or of an occult underlying systemic disease. Of the patients referred to a dermatologist for generalized pruritus with no apparent primary cutaneous cause, 14 to 24 percent have a systemic etiology. In the absence of a primary skin lesion, the review of systems should include evaluation for thyroid disorders, lymphoma, kidney and liver diseases, and diabetes mellitus. Findings suggestive of less serious etiologies include younger age, localized symptoms, acute onset, involvement limited to exposed areas, and a clear association with a sick contact or recent travel. Chronic or generalized pruritus, older age, and abnormal physical findings should increase concern for underlying systemic conditions. Initial evaluation for systemic disease includes complete blood count and measurement of thyroid-stimulating hormone, fasting glucose, alkaline phosphatase, bilirubin, creatinine, and blood urea nitrogen. Hodgkin lymphoma is the malignant disease most strongly associated with pruritus, which affects up to 30 percent of patients with the disease. Chest radiography is needed when lymphoma is suspected. A wheal and flare response indicates histamine-induced pruritus in patients with urticaria or an allergic dermatitis. These patients benefit from continuous dosing of a long-acting antihistamine. Second-generation antihistamines, such as cetirizine, loratadine, and fexofenadine, may be more effective because of improved patient compliance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)195-202
Number of pages8
JournalAmerican Family Physician
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2011


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