Itchy upper arms can most commonly be caused by dermatologic issues like allergic reactions from certain foods, chemicals, or contact with certain plants like poison ivy or oak. Other causes of rashes on upper arms include eczema, psoriasis, or scabies. Read below for associated symptoms, other causes, and treatment options.
Symptoms of itchy upper arms
Also called pruritus, itching is an uncomfortable sensation that causes a desire to scratch the affected area. Itching can be annoying and has many potential causes. Itching can be especially worrisome if it leads to severe scratching or skin damage. Most causes of upper arm itch are minor and easily treatable. However, some causes may require evaluation and treatment by a medical professional.
Common characteristics of upper arm itch
Upper arm itch may be the result of a variety of factors, and depending on the cause can be:
- Persistent (continuous)
- Intermittent (comes and goes)
- Acute (sudden and temporary)
- Chronic (continuous or recurring)
Common accompanying symptoms
Depending on the cause, upper arm itch may be associated with:
- Lumps or bumps in the affected area
What causes itchy upper arms?
Upper arm itch may be the result of several causes including inflammatory conditions, infections, or exposure to something in the environment. Usually, an itchy upper arm is due to a process that involves the skin. However, the cause can sometimes be deeper. See a physician for a proper diagnosis and the best course of treatment if your upper arm itch persists.
Upper arm itch can be caused by inflammation, which is the body’s normal response to injury or infection. Sometimes the body’s immune system kicks in when it’s not supposed to, which leads to autoimmune inflammatory disease.
- : An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system starts to attack the healthy cells that make up your body. Sometimes these autoimmune diseases can affect the skin and lead to damage of the skin cells which can lead to upper arm itch.
- Inflammatory skin conditions: Some diseases like eczema primarily occur in the cells that make up your skin. One of the most common symptoms of that may also be accompanied by redness, dryness, flaking, roughness, and changes in the skin’s appearance.
Sometimes an upper arm itch may occur as part of a reaction to an infection.
- Bacterial infection: Bacteria that cause skin infections include those commonly known as staph (Staphylococcus) and strep (Streptococcus). These bacteria can be normal components of the skin surface, but when there’s damage or injury to the skin, they can penetrate and cause infection and inflammation. When this happens, itchiness may occur along with other infectious symptoms like pain, redness, warmth, and fever.
- Fungal infection: Certain fungi including yeast can penetrate the skin and cause inflammation accompanied by itchiness.
- Viral infection: Some viruses like those that cause chickenpox and shingles can infect the skin and lead to upper arm itch with associated rash or sores.
- Parasitic infection: Parasites are tiny organisms that live and feed either in or on the body. Lice and mites, like the ones that cause are common parasites known to affect the skin and may cause an upper arm itch.
Environmental causes for upper arm itch include traumatic injury or exposure to substances that cause an allergic reaction.
- Trauma: Irritation or injury to the skin covering the upper arm can lead to itchiness.
- Allergies: Certain substances can cause a skin reaction, , on contact can result in itchiness, redness, swelling, and hives. These substances include nickel, poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac.
- Irritants: Certain soaps, lotions, cosmetics, and other substances can also cause redness and irritation after they contact the skin.
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Allergic contact dermatitis of the upper arm
Allergic contact dermatitis is a condition in which the skin becomes irritated and inflamed following physical contact with an allergen. Common products known to cause allergic dermatitis include plants, metals, soap, fragrance, and cosmetics.
Top Symptoms: upper arm redness, upper arm itch, scabbed area of the upper arm
Symptoms that always occur with allergic contact dermatitis of the upper arm: upper arm redness
Allergic reaction to poison ivy/oak/sumac
Plants of the Toxicodendron genus are found throughout the continental United States, and exposure to these plants is a leading cause of contact dermititis, a medical term used to describe irritation and itching of the skin.
Top Symptoms: rash, itchy rash, red rash, skin changes on arm, stinging or burning rash
Symptoms that always occur with allergic reaction to poison ivy/oak/sumac: itchy rash, rash
Symptoms that never occur with allergic reaction to poison ivy/oak/sumac: fever
Eczema (atopic dermatitis) is a non-contagious chronic skin condition that produces an itchy rash. It is caused by a genetic condition that affects the skin's ability to protect itself from bacteria and allergens. The most susceptible are those with a family hi..
Irritant contact dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis means a skin reaction that is caused by directly touching an irritating substance, and not by an infectious agent such as a bacteria or virus.
Common causes are soap, bleach, cleaning agents, chemicals, and even water. Almost any substance can cause it with prolonged exposure. Contact dermatitis is not contagious.
Anyone who works with an irritating substance can contract the condition. Mechanics, beauticians, housekeepers, restaurant workers, and health care providers are all susceptible.
Symptoms include skin that feels swollen, stiff, and dry, and becomes cracked and blistered with painful open sores.
A medical provider can give the best advice on how to heal the skin and avoid further irritation. Self-treatment can make the problem worse if the wrong creams or ointments are used.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, to find out what substances the patient comes into contact with, and through physical examination of the damaged skin.
Treatment involves avoiding the irritating substance if possible. Otherwise, the person can use petroleum jelly on the hands underneath cotton and then rubber gloves.
Top Symptoms: rash with well-defined border, itchy rash, red or pink, rough patch of skin, painful rash, red rash
Symptoms that always occur with irritant contact dermatitis: rash with well-defined border
Symptoms that never occur with irritant contact dermatitis: fever, black-colored skin changes, brown-colored skin changes, blue-colored skin changes
Seborrheic dermatitis is a common chronic inflammatory skin condition that causes flaky, white to yellowish scales to form on oily areas such as the scalp, face or inside the ear. It can occur with or without reddened skin. The exact cause of this condition is not known, although doctors think that some common skin yeast organisms, called Malassezia, may play a role in some people.
Top Symptoms: itchy rash, red or pink, rough patch of skin, rash with well-defined border, scalp skin changes, cheek skin changes
Symptoms that never occur with seborrheic dermatitis: fever
Urgency: Phone call or in-person visit
Ringworm (tinea corporis)
Tinea corporis means "ringworm that affects the body." It is caused by a fungus, not an actual worm, on the surface of the skin. It is also called dermatophytosis.
Ringworm is very contagious through direct contact and through shared clothing, bedding, shower floors, locker rooms, etc. A person showing no symptoms can still spread ringworm. It is also transferred between humans and animals, especially dogs, cats, and horses.
Most susceptible are those with weakened immune systems, though anyone can contract ringworm.
Symptoms include an itchy, circular red rash that spreads outward and grows larger. It may form a pattern of rings on the arms, legs, and/or body.
Treatment is important in order to prevent further spread of the disease, and to ease the discomfort. The rash itself can become infected from constant scratching.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and skin culture.
Treatment involves anti-fungal medications applied to the skin, and sometimes a course of prescription anti-fungal pills.
Top Symptoms: dry skin, rash, red rash, itchy rash, curved rash
Symptoms that never occur with ringworm (tinea corporis): groin skin changes, fever, scrotal itch, groin itch, facial skin changes, hand skin changes, genital skin changes
Psoriasis causes an overgrowth of surface skin cells, creating a red, scaly, itchy, and painful rash.
It is believed to be an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack its own healthy skin cells. It may be genetic in origin but triggered by anything that further strains the immune system, such as infections, skin injury, alcohol consumption, obesity, smoking, and stress.
Symptoms may come and go in cycles lasting weeks or months. They include red patches of thickened skin, sometimes with gray-white scales; dry, cracked, bleeding skin; stiff and swollen joints; and thickened, misshapen nails.
It is important to see a medical provider for care, because psoriasis can interfere with quality of life. It is associated with higher risk of arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and other conditions.
Treatment involves different combinations of topical medications, oral medications, and phototherapy with natural or artificial light. Lifestyle changes such as improved diet, quitting smoking, and managing stress are very helpful in many cases.
Top Symptoms: itchy rash, red or pink, rough patch of skin, rash with well-defined border, painful rash, scaly rash
Symptoms that never occur with psoriasis: fever, black-colored skin changes, brown-colored skin changes, blue-colored skin changes
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Scabies is a rash caused by the microscopic human itch mite. It burrows into the top layer of skin to feed and causes severe itching and irritation.
The mite spreads through direct contact or through infested bedding or furniture. It can infect anyone, though most susceptible are:
- Sexually active young adults.
- Anyone with a weakened immune system.
- Patients in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Symptoms include intense itching, especially at night, and a rash of tiny red bumps. Scratching may cause the rash to form sores, scales, or crusts. The rash most often forms between the fingers, in the folds of the wrists and elbows, and any place normally covered by clothing.
It is important to get treatment because the scratching can cause an infection in the skin. In children, mites can cover nearly the entire body.
Diagnosis is made through physical examination and skin test.
Treatment involves a prescription for skin cream. Everyone who has come into contact with the affected person must be treated, even if they show no symptoms.
Top Symptoms: vaginal itch or burning, vulvovaginal redness, feeling itchy or tingling all over, butt itch, elbow itch
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Non-specific dermatitis (skin inflammation)
Nonspecific dermatitis, or contact dermatitis, simply means inflammation of the skin from many different causes.
Most nonspecific dermatitis is caused by skin contact with a substance that provokes a reaction, which could be anything from plants to soap to jewelry to fabrics. Some may be due to an autoimmune condition, where the body's immune system attacks itself.
Risk factors include a family or personal history of allergies, asthma, or other condition which weakens the immune system; or constant contact with metals, plant life, or chemicals.
Symptoms commonly include red, swollen skin rash with itching, blistering, or oozing, which may become painful and infected.
Dermatitis itself is not contagious but can interfere with quality of life. A medical provider can help with managing the symptoms.
Diagnosis is made through patient history, physical examination, and sometimes skin biopsy and patch testing.
Treatment involves using protective measures if the substances cannot be avoided; making nutritional improvements to strengthen the immune system; using corticosteroid or other creams; and phototherapy.
Top Symptoms: red rash, itchy rash, painful rash
Symptoms that always occur with non-specific dermatitis (skin inflammation): red rash
A dermatofibroma is a common skin growth that usually appears on the lower legs, but may appear anywhere on the body. These growths are benign (noncancerous). Dermatofibromas are most common in adults and are rarely found in children.
Symptoms include a hard, raised growth that is red, pink, ..
At-home and professional treatment for itchy upper arms
If your upper arm itch persists or becomes more bothersome, you should see a physician for proper diagnosis and treatment.
If your upper arm itch is associated with irritation, infection, trauma or injury, some at-home treatments may help.
- Warm or cold compress: Applying a warm water compress can help soothe itchiness and inflammation from an infectious process. Applying a cold water compress or ice can reduce itchiness and irritation from inflammatory or irritating causes like allergic exposure or autoimmune disease.
- Moisturizer: Repeated applications of lotion to the affected areas can help limit upper arm itch symptoms caused by dryness or issues such as eczema.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with a physician and try to be evaluated in the next few days if you experience:
- Persistent itchiness
- Worsening itchiness
- Itchiness that is gradually spreading up or down the arm
- Itchiness so severe that it is interfering with your day-to-day activities
- Fever: Especially if accompanied by increasing or spreading redness, warmth and/or a collection of pus
When it is an emergency
You should seek immediate medical attention if your upper arm itch is associated with any of the following symptoms or factors:
- Unexplained and/or extreme fatigue or lack of energy
- Painful blisters on the skin and in the mouth, nose, eyes and/or genitals
- Shedding of the skin within days after blisters form
- Unexplained, widespread skin pain
Some causes of upper arm itch can be prevented with changes in personal hygiene. Bathing less frequently can sometimes be curative. Frequent bathing with hot water can lead to dry skin which can worsen symptoms of upper arm itch. Some soaps can also be irritating to the skin, especially if you develop an allergy to that soap. Avoiding certain soaps or lotions with strong scents or harsh chemicals may help reduce your symptoms. Sticking to mild soaps and lotions is best, especially if they are labeled hypoallergenic.
FAQs about upper arm itch
Will my upper arm itch spread?
It depends on the cause. If your upper arm itch is due to trauma or irritation to a single location it likely will not spread. If your upper arm itch is caused by infection, an autoimmune condition, or an inflammatory skin condition you may notice it spread.
When will my upper arm itch resolve?
The duration of upper arm itch symptoms depends on the cause. Some causes of upper arm itch are acute, meaning they are temporary and short-lived. These causes include allergic exposure, trauma, and infection. However, some causes of upper arm itch are chronic, meaning they can cause symptoms gradually and for an extended period of time or symptoms that come and go over time. This includes causes like autoimmune and inflammatory skin conditions.
Is my upper arm itching contagious?
The itching itself is not contagious but the cause of the itching may be. For example, some infectious causes of upper arm itch are very contagious and can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact like the virus that causes chickenpox and shingles, and the parasite that causes scabies. Depending on the cause, anyone that lives with you might also require treatment in order to prevent them from getting the same symptoms. A medical professional will be able to determine if your upper arm itch is contagious, and if so, what the best course of treatment is.
What are potential complications of my upper arm itch?
One of the most worrisome complications of itchiness is severe damage to the skin, which can occur when the desire to scratch is so intense that you create breakages in your skin. This can prevent the skin from doing its job as a protective barrier from the outside world. Damage to the skin can leave the underlying tissue exposed to bacteria, viruses, and fungi which can lead to infection.
Why is the itching only in my upper arm?
It depends. You may have damaged only one area of your skin which resulted in itchiness or irritation. Sometimes an upper arm itch is due to exposure to an allergen, like poison ivy, that brushed up against your skin.
Questions your doctor may ask about upper arm itch
- Do you have a rash?
- Did your symptoms start after you were exposed to glues, fragrances, preservatives, hair dyes, soaps, detergents, or other common household chemicals?
- Did your symptoms start after you were exposed to nickel (commonly found in jean snaps, metal pens, paper clips, cigarettes, etc.)?
- Is the red area flaky and rough to the touch?
- Autoimmune diseases. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated October 23, 2018.
- Eczema. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated October 23, 2018.
- Scabies - Diagnosis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Usatine RP, Riojas M. Diagnosis and Management of Contact Dermatitis. Am Fam Physician. 2010 Aug 1;82(3):249-255.