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First it was just a little tickle, but now your pits are screaming for a scratch. You’ve asked the internet about your itchy underarms, and now you’re sweating over cancer symptoms.
But slow your roll: While itching can be a sign of some cancers, there are other, more likely reasons your armpits itch.
Let’s dive into the possible causes of itchy pits.
Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of cancer affecting the lymphatic system, a network of nodes and channels throughout your body. About 30 percent of people with Hodgkin’s lymphoma experience itching before and during the disease’s progression (paraneoplastic pruritus, if you’re fancy).
The rash can be scaly or look like eczema. Other symptoms include swollen lymph nodes, fatigue, weight loss, night sweats, and fever.
In some cases, advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma can lead to bumps or lesions on the skin called cutaneous Hodgkin disease. Researchers say this is less common since treatment for the disease has improved.
Non-Hodgkin’s: Cutaneous T-cell and B-cell lymphomas
In these two rare types of cancer, rogue white blood cells attack the skin instead of attacking the illness. B-cell lymphoma appears as a nodule under the skin that may be pink, purple, or the same color as your skin.
Itching is a common symptom of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, experienced by 62 to 83 percent of patients. An increase in itching can indicate progression or relapse of the disease, so it’s a symptom that should be monitored closely.
The rash looks like raised round patches that may be scaly and itchy. Other signs of T-cell lymphoma are light patches of skin, lumps or lesions on the skin, enlarged lymph nodes, hair loss, thickening of the skin on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, and a full-body rash.
Due to their proximity, you may wonder if itchy pits can signal a problem with your breasts. Here’s what you need to know about itching and inflammatory breast cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, in addition to itching, signs of inflammatory breast cancer include:
- swelling of skin of the breast
- redness on more than one-third of the breast
- pitting and thickening of skin, which gives it a texture like an orange peel
- a retracted or inverted nipple
- one breast seeming larger, heavier, and warmer than the other
- tenderness or pain
- swollen lymph nodes under the arms or near the collarbone
These signs usually develop within 3 to 6 months. However, an infection is a more likely cause of tenderness, redness, warmth, and itching. If symptoms don’t improve with antibiotics, you may need more tests to rule out cancer.
Now that you know cancer-related itching is rare and accompanied by other serious symptoms, let’s look at some less-scary reasons for underarm rashes and itching.
Eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, is a common chronic itchy, red, scaly rash. Affected skin may thicken over time, and breakdown of skin can lead to bacterial, fungal, yeast, and viral infections.
Half of people with moderate to severe eczema also have seasonal allergies, asthma, and food allergies. Soaps, dust mites, pollen, animal dander, and some bacteria may cause the rash to flare up.
Fight the funk
Maybe you’re cultivating your personal microbiome and have skipped a few baths lately. Because warm, moist places are ideal habitats for bacteria and fungi, armpits are like an amusement park for funky micro-critters.
Regular washing will keep the population in check and hopefully reduce itching.
The condition causes itching, burning, skin breakdown, and odor if there’s a secondary candida infection. People who are in larger bodies, have diabetes, have HIV, or are immobile are at higher risk for intertrigo.
Irritant contact dermatitis
But what if washing the affected area makes it worse? Irritant contact dermatitis is a rash that develops in response to contact with a chemical or moisture.
Irritants include harsh chemicals like battery acid, bleach, and pepper spray, but irritant contact dermatitis can also be caused by prolonged exposure to water, foods, and soaps.
Allergic contact dermatitis may also result from an allergy to deodorant ingredients or fabrics that come into contact with your underarms.
Feeling hot, hot, HOT!
Fun in the sun can lead to a heat rash or hives triggered by heat and sweat. Also called prickly heat, this rash develops when sweat glands are blocked and sweat accumulates under the skin.
Cooling off should relieve the rash, but watch for signs of infection.
About 4.8 percent of the population lives with hyperhidrosis, a skin disorder that causes sweating in excess of what’s necessary to regulate the body’s temperature.
Areas most often affected by excessive sweating are the underarms, palms, soles, head, and face. Prescription-strength antiperspirants used to treat hyperhidrosis can cause skin irritation.
Less common itchy skin conditions
- Seborrheic dermatitis is a chronic inflammatory skin disease that occurs most commonly on the scalp, face, chest, back, underarms, and groin.
- Though rare, apocrine miliaria can cause an itchy rash in areas near apocrine glands, like the armpits, areolas, and the genital area. For people with this disorder, triggers for itching include stress, excitement, sweating, and hot, humid weather.
- Hidradenitis suppurativa causes deep, painful nodules under the arms, in the underboob area, and in the groin and booty areas. Lesions can be both itchy and painful.
Don’t ignore symptoms that trouble you, especially in these cases:
- if you suspect lymphoma or inflammatory breast cancer based on your symptoms
- if your symptoms don’t get better in a week
- if you notice an unusual odor or signs of infection like redness or fever
See a doctor to make sure you get the most effective treatment for your particular itch. If you think you sweat more than is typical, that, too, could be a treatable medical condition.
- Wash regularly with a non-irritating soap.
- Make a note of new products or clothing that could have kicked off the itching.
- Test deodorants and antiperspirants on a small area of skin first to make sure they don’t irritate your skin.
- Stay cool and hydrated when it’s hot.
It’s easy to get spooked by an unusual symptom and start Googling “cancer.” While itching in the underarm area can be a sign of some forms of cancer, it’s not a likely first symptom.
Trust your gut and see a doctor if the symptoms listed above fit your experience. It’s far more likely your itchy pits are due to one of a few common skin conditions. If it doesn’t go away on its own in a week or two, ask a professional for some itch relief.