Feeling itchy around your ankles can be pretty annoying. One moment you're fine, then suddenly, you have to reach down and scratch a pesky itch.
The cause of itchy ankles can be minor, like dry skin, or more serious, like certain skin conditions or allergies that cause itchiness (officially called pruritus in the medical world), according to Bruce Robinson, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.
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Here's a look at the most common causes of itchy ankles, how to treat them and when to see a doctor to get relief.
1. You Have Bug Bites
Insect bites are one of the most common reasons for itchy ankles, especially in the summer.
That's because when the weather is warm, you tend to wear less clothing, and insects take advantage of your exposed ankles as an easy target.
"Insects inject saliva when they bite to break down protein and extract the blood from our skin," Dr. Robinson says. "This causes an inflammatory response, making the skin swell, itch and sometimes blister." (In fact, any swelling of the legs could result in itchy ankles.)
Most bug bites are harmless, with the worst symptom being itchiness for a few days. But some insects (often depending on where you live) can spread harmful diseases like Lyme disease and malaria, per the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD).
To prevent bug bites, the AAD recommends these practices:
- Wear insect repellent
- Wear long sleeves and long pants to cover as much skin as possible
- Use bed nets if sleeping outdoors
2. Your Skin Is Dry
No one is immune to dry skin, especially when it's cold outside. That's because dry winter air can strip away skin's moisture.
"The lower humidity and colder air leads to an exit of moisture, causing the skin to dry," Dr. Robinson says. "This is what produces that itch sensation."
According to the AAD, dry skin is also more common in certain people, including:
- Adults age 40 and older
- People of color
- People with vitamin deficiencies
- People living with chronic conditions like diabetes, thyroid disease and kidney disease
Your skin can also dry out from everyday activities like taking hot showers, using harsh soaps or cleaning products and taking certain medications, per the AAD. And if you have itchy ankles at night, it may be because your skin loses more moisture at night, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Lotion seems like the obvious answer when it comes to dry skin remedies, but it's important to use the correct product to moisturize your skin.
"I know we use the terms lotions, creams and ointments interchangeably, but there's actually a difference," Dr. Robinson says. "Lotions are the least moisturizing, creams are sort of in the middle and then there's the most effective: ointments like Aquaphor and Vaseline."
3. You Have Eczema
Certain people are genetically predisposed to this chronic issue, Dr. Robinson says, and while most people deal with it in childhood, you can get eczema as an adult, too.
Eczema on your ankles can cause other symptoms, including:
- Skin rash
- Cracked skin
- Bumps on your skin
- Flaky skin
Eczema can also flare up in cold, dry weather, or with certain fabrics, skin-care products and even stress, per the Cleveland Clinic.
"Apply a really good moisturizer for eczema to close any openings in the skin," Dr. Robinson says. "This helps hold moisture in."
You should also try to stay away from irritating fabrics like wool and cashmere, he says. "The more cotton, the better (especially around the ankles), as cotton doesn't tend to cause irritation."
4. It's Contact Dermatitis
Contact dermatitis or contact eczema is caused by the direct contact of something irritating to the skin, Dr. Robinson says, like a harsh cleaner.
"Your body responds to an irritant — like poison ivy, perfume or certain jewelry — and produces a reaction," he says. Ankle rashes, in particular, could come from ankle jewelry or poison ivy.
You could also have allergic contact dermatitis, a true allergic reaction to something else that touched your skin that you are allergic to.
The reason it itches? Your body produces a chemical called histamine in reaction to the irritant, which causes itching and swelling as side effects, Dr. Robinson says.
"The best thing to do is remove whatever is causing irritation," he adds.
To soothe itchiness immediately, the best thing to do is to apply something cold, Dr. Robinson says. "Put a few ice cubes in a zip-top bag and apply it to the area for instant relief. It's one of the oldest forms of anesthesia." If you think you could be having a severe allergic reaction, talk to your doctor. You may need a prescription medication for relief.
5. You Have a Fungal Infection
You may have heard of skin infections like ringworm or athlete's foot before. They're actually fungal infections that can cause a serious itch, Dr. Robinson says.
These infections happen when fungus comes in direct contact with skin. They're commonly spread through towels, shoes and socks, or in humid, shared spaces, like locker rooms and saunas.
A fungal skin infection on your ankles could cause a rash, peeling and possibly an itchy or burning sensation, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Fungal infections on the skin can be treated with over-the-counter antifungal creams or medications.
Dr. Robinson suggests using products with the ingredient clotrimazole, an antifungal medicine that's placed directly on the skin. Treatment can take up to four weeks to kill the fungus, Dr. Robinson says.
How to Prevent Itchy Ankles
We know the potential causes of itchy ankles, but how can we prevent them from itching in the first place? Here are a few strategies:
- Wear protective clothing. Cover up your ankles to avoid bug bites, poison ivy or other irritants that could cause an itch when directly touching your ankles.
- Moisturize. Protect and retain the moisture in your skin by using a quality moisturizer every day. This can also help calm symptoms of skin conditions like eczema.
- Avoid irritants. Remove any items that are irritating your ankles and causing them to itch. This could be ankle jewelry, scented lotion or perfume and certain fabrics like wool.
- Talk to your doctor. If you're taking a certain medication (or using a certain medicated cream) that you think is causing itchy ankles, talk to your doctor. They can go over any potential side effects and offer some alternative treatments.
When to See a Doctor About Itchy Ankles
If you've tried to remedy your itchy ankles with over-the-counter ointments, medications and moisturizers but nothing seems to work, it's time to see a doctor, Dr. Robinson says.
"This is also true if you see a rash, but it's not itchy anymore," he adds.
You should also see a doctor if you have the following, per the Mayo Clinic:
- A severe itch that interferes with your daily routine
- Itchiness that spreads to your whole body
- Other symptoms like weight loss, fever or fatigue
- Itchiness that appears suddenly without explanation
- Significant swelling in one leg, foot or ankle but not the other
Are itchy ankles a sign of diabetes?
Itchy ankles, feet and legs are a common symptom for people living with diabetes, Dr. Robinson says. This may be due to high blood sugar levels, dry skin or diabetes complications like nerve damage or kidney disease. If you suspect your itchy ankles are related to diabetes, you should see your doctor.
Are itchy ankles a sign of liver problems?
Itchy skin is one of the symptoms of liver disease — a serious condition that can become life-threatening if left untreated. Your liver is an essential organ responsible for digestion and removing toxins from your body, per the Mayo Clinic. Other symptoms of liver disease include:
- Jaundice (yellow eyes and skin)
- Abdominal pain and swelling
- Swollen legs and ankles
- Dark urine
- Pale stool
- Loss of appetite
Itchy skin can also be a symptom of gallbladder disease, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Are itchy ankles a sign of cancer?
Itchy ankles are more likely to be a sign of an allergic reaction or a skin infection rather than cancer, but it is possible for underlying cancers to cause itch, Dr. Robinson says. "We'll start to test for cancer if there's no other reason found for chronic itchiness," he adds.
Ultimately, there is not a lot of scientific evidence that itching is a sign of cancer in the body, he says.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.