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Pruritus (PDQ®)

Patient Version

Causes of Pruritus in Cancer Patients

Certain cancers and blood disorders are likely to cause pruritus.

These include the following:

Certain cancer treatments may cause pruritus.

Cancer treatments that may cause pruritus include the following:


When chemotherapy causes pruritus, it may be a sign that you are sensitive to the drugs being used. Anticancer drugs that commonly cause itching include the following:

The way you react depends on the drug, the dose, and whether you are allergic to it. Itching caused when drugs are given by infusion usually occurs only near the place where the needle was inserted and often stops on its own 30 to 90 minutes after the infusion ends. It's important to report itching caused by chemotherapy to your doctor because your reactions can get worse each time the same drug is used.

Radiation therapy

Radiation can kill skin cells and cause dryness, burning, and itching as the skin peels off. Broken skin may become infected by scratching. If your skin is severely damaged, radiation treatments may have to be stopped for a while to give your skin time to heal. This can affect how well your cancer treatment works. Your doctor will try to keep your skin healthy so you can continue treatment. Some types of radiation cause fewer side effects than others.

Radiation therapy and chemotherapy together

The side effects of radiation therapy and chemotherapy given together can be more severe than the side effects when each is given alone.

Biologic therapy

Several biologic therapy drugs may cause itching. This is most common with drugs called interferons.

Bone marrow transplant

Graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) can occur after a bone marrow transplant. In some patients, GVHD may cause dry skin and an itchy rash. In severe cases, it can progress to scleroderma, which is a hardening and thickening of the skin. Muscles and tendons can also harden and make joints stiff. This complication of scleroderma is called contracture.

Drugs for supportive care

Some of the drugs used to prevent or treat cancer symptoms may cause pruritus, including the following:

Pruritus can be a symptom of infection.

Itching around the anus or vulva might be caused by infections with Trichomonas or fungi, nearby tumors, hemorrhoids, tears in the anus, or fluids draining from wounds.

  • Updated: February 5, 2014