Itch, also known as pruritus, is the major symptom in skin diseases with a variety of etiologies and pathophysiologies. Significant progress has been achieved in understanding the pathophysiology of itch in the last 5 years. Neurophysiological experiments in humans and animals have revealed that itch is carried by specific C nerve fibers. Recent studies have demonstrated that peripheral mediators other than histamine are involved in induction of itch. Mast cell tryptase seems to be an important mediator in itch by its activation of proteinase activated receptor 2 in the sensory nerves. Opioids have central and peripheral itch producing activity. Neuropeptides, such as substance P, induce itch by their effect on mast cells. Based upon our improved understanding of the neurophysiology of itch a clinical classification of itch has been proposed. The classification highlights differences between peripheral pruritoceptive itch, neuropathic itch (itch related to damage to afferent nerve fibers) and neurogenic itch (itch originating in the central nervous system without any evidence of nerve damage). Emerging therapies based on these findings include topical vanilloid receptor antagonists, topical antihistamines, and topical arachidonic acid inhibitors, as well as inhibitors of non-histamine inflammatory mediators, immunomodulators and strontium salts. Systemic therapies include thalidomide, opioid antagonists, phototherapy with narrow band UVB and experimental treatments with cutaneous field stimulation and vagal nerve stimulation. With the new information it seems we will be able to better help our dermatologic patients who have itch, however we are not closer to identifying a single agent specifically targetable to this symptom.
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