What is neurodermatitis?

Neurodermatitis is a non-life-threatening skin condition involving itching and scratching, usually on just one or two patches of skin. It is also called lichen simplex chronicus.

The itch can occur anywhere on the body but is most commonly found on the arms, shoulders, elbows, legs, ankles, wrists, hands, back of the neck or scalp. The anal and genital areas and the face might also itch. The itching can be intense, causing frequent scratching, or it might come and go. It is most active when the patient is relaxing or trying to sleep. In some cases, the patient wakes up scratching or rubbing the affected area.

What does neurodermatitis look like?

The itchy patches measure between 3 centimeters by 6 centimeters and 6 centimeters by 10 centimeters. The patches can look:

  • Dry.
  • Thick.
  • Scaly.
  • Leathery.
  • Differently colored, such as reddish, brownish, yellowish, gray or purple. Older patches can appear white or pale in the center, surrounded by darker colors. Over time, there might be scarring.

Scratching can irritate nerve endings in the skin and worsen the itching, leading to more scratching. The condition can become chronic as the itch-scratch cycle continues.

Who is most likely to get neurodermatitis?

It is estimated that neurodermatitis occurs in about 12% of the population. Research has shown that people between 30 years old and 50 years old are more likely to contract the condition. Women are more likely than men to suffer from neurodermatitis at a ratio of 2:1. Those with anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders and family members with histories of other skin diseases, including eczema and contact dermatitis, are more likely to develop neurodermatitis.

Some recent studies have suggested that those with certain personality traits – including poor social skills, lack of flexibility, tendency toward pain avoidance, dependency on other people, people-pleasing and dutifulness – are more likely to have neurodermatitis. However, other studies have found no connection between personality and the condition.

What causes neurodermatitis?

The underlying cause of neurodermatitis is unknown. However, it has been observed that the itch can start during times of extreme stress, anxiety, emotional trauma or depression. The itching sometimes continues even after the mental stress eases or stops.

Other possible neurodermatitis triggers include:

  • Nerve injuries.
  • Insect bites.
  • Dry skin.
  • Wearing tight clothing, especially if the material is a synthetic fiber, like polyester or rayon. These factors can cause sensitive skin to overreact and itch.
  • Other skin diseases. Neurodermatitis sometimes happens as a result of eczema and psoriasis.

What are the symptoms of neurodermatitis?

In addition to itching, scratching and dry, discolored patches of skin, symptoms of neurodermatitis can include:

  • Pain.
  • Hair loss if itching and scratching occurs on the scalp.
  • Open sores and bleeding, due to repeated scratching.
  • Infection, which is indicated by sores with yellow-colored crusts, fluid discharge and/or pus-filled bumps.
  • Scarring from scratching.
  • Skin lines in the affected skin.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/10/2019.

References

  • American Academy of Dermatology. Neurodermatitis. Accessed 10/11/2019.
  • National Eczema Association. Lichen Simplex Chronicus. Neurodermatitis. Accessed 10/11/2019.

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