You’re on a run and in a nice groove. Then all of a sudden, an odd type of pain slowly creeps up your legs, like tiny ants are marching up and down. One of the most common, overwhelming sensations a runner can experience is itchy legs, also known as runner’s itch. It’s an annoying situations that can halt your run. And no matter how much you scratch, the itchy sensation doesn’t seem to go away. Sigh.
The Spring season is the start of many things: Warm-but-crisp temps, and runners getting back into the rhythm of outdoor running (or starting a routine for the first time like 30% runners surveyed this past year!). It also kicks off allergy season for many sufferers. Sigh again.
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When it comes to runner’s itch, there are several causes. We’ll take you through what might be happening and how to treat it. (Good news first: There’s no sudden cause for alarm. In most cases, itchy legs is a mere annoyance, not a severe issue or symptom of a larger problem.)
What Causes Itchy Legs While Running?
There are a number of reasons you might experience mid-run itchiness, but it seems to be more common in those who are getting back in shape. If you’ve taken some time off of running and are just getting back into it, you may also experience uncomfortable welts or rashes, says running coach Lora Erickson.
Here are a few other reasons you might be experiencing this annoying condition.
Increased Blood Flow
As your heart rate increases so does your blood flow, which causes the capillaries and arteries in your muscles to expand. The capillaries stay open to allow for maximum blood passage when you’re fit, but if you’re out of shape, your capillaries tend to collapse, not allowing as much blood to pass through. When your capillaries expand, the surrounding nerves become stimulated and send messages to the brain, which reads the sensation as itching.
This is sort of interesting: According to a 2017 research review, exercise may promote the release of histamine to prevent fatigue instead of as an allergic reaction. Histamine causes your blood vessels to expand, which contributes to the itchy sensation.
You may be especially prone to runner’s itch if you have sensitive skin. Allergies to certain laundry detergents, fabric softeners, or clothing material can cause itchiness. The combination of sweating and dry skin can worsen the irritation.
Exercise-induced urticaria is an allergic response that occurs when you experience itchiness along with hives or redness of the skin. (Additional symptoms can include stomach cramps, headache, difficulty breathing, and swelling of the face, tongue, or hands.)
It typically occurs during or after strenuous exercise, such as running or hiking, especially when you do these activities in hot or cold weather.
Exercise-induced vasculitis or purpura
Exercise-induced vasulitis is also known as golfer’s vasculitis or hiker’s rash. This inflammatory condition involves red patches, purple spots, and swelling on the thighs and lower legs. The itchy rash is accompanied by intense stinging, pain, and burning. (Genetics may make you more prone to exercise-induced vasculitis. Usually, symptoms resolve on their own within a matter of days.)
Exercise-induced purpura on the other hand occurs in people who run marathons, take long walks, or engage in unusual physical activity. It’s especially common during hot weather in the mountains. It causes blood spots to occur on the lower legs.
According to medical experts, other possible causes of runner’s itch include: food allergies, alcoholic drinks, medications, including aspirin, and other allergic reactions.
Why Do Legs Tend To Itch More In Cold Weather?
Watch out if you happen to shower more than once a day. Too many showers can wash away some of the skin’s natural oils that keep it moist, leaving your skin dry and itchy.
Dry air is another contributing factor, especially during the cold winter months, says Erickson. Cold weather usually has less humidity, which means dry air. “As a coach, I see more dehydration in the winter because of the dry air. We lose most of our moisture through breathing and winter is rarely the time that we feel like drinking water. Replenishment is a struggle in the winter, leaving us in a dehydrated state, contributing to dry skin,” says Erickson.
Also something to consider for women is non-shaved legs. A lot of women don’t shave their legs in the winter, but that “stubble” can cause itching—especially when wearing running tights,” says Erickson.
Some fabrics can also irritate the skin and wick away moisture, leaving the skin even dryer. Laundry detergent may also be the culprit. Opt for sensitive skin detergent to avoid any irritation.
What Can You Do To Prevent Runner’s Itch?
Remember, more often than not, this condition is temporary and not a cause for concern. Plus, Erickson says there are plenty of steps you can do to prevent itchy legs.
- Keep exercising to allow the body to adapt. (This is probably the biggest one.)
- Stay hydrated.
- Use moisturizing lotions after showering.
- Take a warm bath with oatmeal, Epsom salts, or baking soda.
- Apply aloe vera gel, hydrocortisone cream, or a cold compress to the itchy area.
- Consider changing your laundry detergent to something milder.
- Shave your legs! Yes, even in the winter.
- Wear compression sleeves and elevate your legs for 15 minutes at a time a few times per day to help improve circulation.
To prevent runner’s itch, keep up with your regular exercise routine. After a few work out sessions, your legs will get used to moving and the itch should subside. If you experience rashes or welts, after a week, you should speak with your doctor.
It’s important to remember that just like your face turning red during exercise, experiencing itchy legs while running isn’t cause for alarm, unless the itch is accompanied by hives. If you’re also experiencing stomach cramps, swelling of the face or tongue, or difficulty breathing along with the itchiness, seek medical attention immediately.