Monday, February 13, 2017

How To Stop Itching, From Personal Experience

When Dr Desert Flower and I moved from Arizona to California 5 years ago, almost immediately, I began getting itchy for no apparent reason.  The house we rented at the time had a hot tub, and while soaking in it felt good, I'd get itchy after drying off.  "Southern California is basically an irrigated desert" is the saying around here... but... after 5 years in Phoenix, the actual Sonoran Desert where humidity of 20% RH was normal, and a day of 40% RH was considered "muggy", one would have thought that California environmental dryness should not be that bad comparatively, right?

Well, the rental house also had fleas, which not only spiked up the itching but also drove our cats nuts until I eradicated the fleas using a Boric Acid powder solution across the entire house.  Then we moved into the home we bought in Orange County, sans fleas, but with a pool and a hot tub, and the itching got gradually worse.  I'd wake up in the middle of the night itching myself so fiercely that I'd scratch my neck, back, arms, and legs until they bled, which was really disgusting.  I tried going in the hot tub and pool, but the heat of the tub made it worse, and the rapid drying from the pool dried out my already irritated and aggravated skin even more.  I tried drinking one of the many craft beers readily available in Southern California, and within a few hours of drinking the delicious beverage, I'd start itching some more.  I tried self medicating with red wines that I'd been enjoying for the last 15 years, hoping to drink enough to fall asleep, and not wake up itching in the middle of the night.  This Often Did Not Work.  It was delicious... but the itching intensified.

I tried going to acupuncture to a local practitioner near our OC home, since I'd tried acupuncture while I lived in Phoenix for muscle and joint pain and it had helped significantly back then.  The acupuncture treatment DID relax me, and temporarily calm the itching while I as on the table with needles in me, but it had no lasting effect, between visits.

I tried sleeping pills, which had helped me when I'd traveled over-seas, and gave me a sedative sleep, but the results were lack luster.  Sometimes, the sleep was sound.  Sometimes, the sleep was restless and itchy.  This went on for almost 2 years, maddeningly.  I went to a dermatologist who prescribed ALL SORTS of topical steroids as well as some oral steroids.  "Temporary magic" is what my current primary care doctor calls steroids.  They did temporarily calm my skin down, but they also thinned it out to the point where the tiniest little scratch cause the skin to break and bleed. Bloody sleeves, pillow cases, and sheets were constantly grossing me out, and forcing multiple laundry loads several times a week.  It was not sustainable.

I tried swimming in the ocean several times a week, with the idea that MORE natural bacteria would help Balance whatever had gone out of whack on my skin.  That didn't work, and caused itching as the skin dried on the 15 minute drive home.

I went to a respected immunologist who put me on remarkably nasty drugs that are given to transplant recipients so that they don't reject their new organs.  It suppressed my immune system massively, but the itching persisted, nightly.  It also attacked during my work day when I was on a stressful call with an argumentative customer or contentious debate. Histamines were reigning supreme.  Benadryl, even at high doses, was ineffective.  Madness had begun to settle in, as I was losing my mind.

I'd read online about the homeopathic method of taking concentrated epsom salt baths (magnesium sulfate) to reduce itching.   Costco sells inexpensive MgSO4 in five pound bags, so 2 or 3 times a week, about every other day, I'd soak in a highly concentrated brine solution in our garden tub.  it helped to moisturize my skin, make it less prone to bleeding when scratched, and was a good opportunity to meditate, and calm... stress reduction.  Which was great during the bath, but didn't last through the night after the bath.

By this time both of our elderly cats had died.  The immunologist ran some tests on me that showed my blood was totally allergic to cats, to a level that should have caused anaphylaxis. No new cats, sadly for Dr Desert Flower.  We'd moved into a new house, with new carpeting and new paint, and yet still the nightly itching and stress induced itching were dominating my day-to-day life.  At wits end, I called my buddy Ron, who reads far more than I do, and is one of the smartest people I know, and told him of my plight.  "Elimination diet" we discussed, with just grass fed beef, celery, and almonds. Any vegetable I might eat would have to be organic. No grains, no dairy, no wine, no beer, just water to drink.  I did a 4 day cross-country drive, where I at almonds in the car as I drove alone, ate organic bland beef jerky, and suppered on grass fed steaks.  No sauces, no BBQ, just bland, natural food.  I trimmed my nails SUPER short so that I disarmed the scratching / bleeding devices, and I moisturized like mad.  "Within 3 minutes of drying yourself off (after bathing or swimming), or the moisturizer would have no effect" my immunologist warned me.  I slathered Aveeno, Lubriderm, and all kinds of other moisturizers on.   The itching started to die down... unexpectedly.

Then, as a proper science experiment, I introduced one new food each week.  Let the body metabolize it, and if no itching occurred, kept enjoying it.  If itching occurred, stop consuming that food.  Through February, March, April, May, and June, I added one food at a time, with discipline.  Sadly, I found that beer caused me to itch almost almost immediately upon drinking it.  The better and more tasty the beer, the more crafty the beer, the worse the itch.  Even going near a brewery and taking a tour made me itchy that day, the following night, and part of the next day.  Nearly every red wine, by the time I got to glass number two, the itch would start up, and last for hours.  Spicy foods, sriracha, jalapeno, chilis, spicy curries, anything spicy... all made my skin hot and itchy, so they got avoided.  Then, the revelation that red wine caused a delayed itch response, usually 2 to 3 hours after going to sleep, almost drove me to clinical depression.  I'd grown to love my red wines from all sorts of regions of the world... and now, my immune system had conspired to make them dermal unenjoyable.  Bordeaux, Malbec, Burgundy, Chianti, Sangiovese, Nero d'Avola, Primitivo, Loire valley, Napa valley, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet...  it didn't matter. If I enjoyed more than a shot glass worth of a red wine, I paid the price that night with itching and restless sleep.

My primary care physician recommended bleach baths, a 1/4 cup per 10 gallons, soaking for 10 to 15 minutes, luke warm, NOT hot water, every other day, 2 to 3 times a week.  This helped the scratches on my skin heal, reduced the redness and inflammation, and served as a "rinse" after taking a normal shower.  [Note: one must be careful though, to avoid new variations in bleach that are "anti splash" types that have detergent in them that causes the bath to foam up rapidly... just get the generic old hypochlorite solution].

So I am happy to say that after 4 years, 3 of them physically bloody miserable, I am now containing and managing my over-reactive itching skin, and things have gotten MUCH MUCH better.
- Removed the external allergens (cats died, didn't replace them & I pay a guy to cut my grass, as I am terribly allergic to grass as well)
- Eliminated the internal allergens inside what I ate and drank (no beer, no red wine, no rye whiskey [rye is grass])
- Stopped taking all the steroids that were thinking out my skin terribly
- Massively moisturized, within 3 minutes of getting out of the tub or shower or ocean, slathering it on rapidly
- Keep nails very short, to reduce accidental self injury while sleeping
- Massively reduce dependency on prescription sleep aids, using them infrequently, and basically only when traveling, and relying upon totally natural products instead.
- Avoid all spicy foods... if a reaction starts, stop eating that food.
- Alternate between bleach baths and magnesium sulfate baths, 3 to 5 times a week
- Have supportive friends and a loving wife who put up with my annoying itching... so that I didn't become self-destructive & suicidal.
The work stress rarely ever causes an itching episode anymore (better management of work stress, plus reduction of biological drivers), and the vast majority of nights are no longer invaded by itching.

I am not saying that my methods will work for you, or for anyone who reads this... I am just saying that it took years to contain (after cropping up in a very short period of time), and it is something that has to continually be managed, with vigilance.  For me, there was No Easy remedy.  If you found one, I'd be more than happy to hear what worked for you.

May 2017 addition - Emu Oil.  The Oleic acid in Emu oil doesn't melt off you like coconut oil does, and if you've got dry, itchy, flaky skin (on your arms, neck, face, legs, or anywhere else) the Emu oil smoothes the itch, significantly reduces the flaking, and stays on you without creating a massive oil slick on everything you touch.  I wear long sleeves if I've put some on, but it works really well.  The stuff is expensive.  $11 for 2 ounces, $55 for a 10 ounce bottle, but it is local (Southern CA emus), available at Sprouts, and works pretty well.  Cheaper than $400 a tube tacrolimus that crappy United Health Care no longer covers in their "formulary", despite the fact it works well.

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