WHEN TO SEE YOUR DOCTOR
* Your itching has lasted for more than a week without relief.
* Itching is accompanied by or causes severe redness, sores or oozing.
* Itching precedes formation of a blister or sore.
* Your genitals are maddeningly itchy and the sensation seems to have spread to other parts of the body.
What Your Symptom Is Telling You
You don't have to be an athlete—you don't even have to wear a jock—to contract itchy genitals.
Friction and fungus are the two primary causes of genital itching. Skin rubbing against skin generates heat and sweat to produce tender, red, itchy patches, says William Dvorine, M.D., chief of the Section of Dermatology at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore and author of Dermatologist's Guide to Home Skin Treatment. People who are physically active or obese are especially susceptible. The itch may appear as a little bit of redness anywhere on the genitals but can advance to more serious inflammation, with scabs and scaling or tender, moist spots where skin has peeled away.
If caused by fungus, the itch and redness will appear more gradually, says Dr. Dvorine. The patches of scaly skin will have defined, ringlike borders—hence the medical name Tinea cruris, or ringworm of the groin.
Fungus-caused jock itch predominates in the summer, says Jack L. Lesher, Jr., M,D., associate professor of dermatology at the Medical College of Georgia School of Medicine in Augusta. "Fungus kind of likes warm, damp places to grow," he says, "but you don't need a fungal infection to get jock itch."
Insanely itchy private parts could be caused by scabies or pubic lice. In a woman, itching also can be the first sign of a yeast infection, especially if she is taking antibiotics. And for both sexes, severe itching, as well as pain, can precede the outbreak of herpes blisters.
You can treat plain old jock itch at home, perhaps after a trip to the drugstore—but do it before the area becomes inflamed and possibly infected. More serious scratch attacks probably will require a visit to the doctor for a prescription itch eraser. Here's how to stop the itch before it becomes a serious problem.
Powder to the people. To reduce chafing that naturally occurs when you walk around, try powdering yourself with cornstarch, Dr. Dvorine says. "It can act as a good buffer to reduce abrasion." Talcum powder also can be effective, but women should be cautious of how frequently they use it. "In women, using talcum powder on a daily basis may lead to other problems," he says. Some studies show an association with cancer of the ovaries.
Ointments salve the day. Over-the-counter creams effectively treat jock itch, dermatologists say. But in order to select the right product, it's important to know what's causing the problem. "Chafing can be aggravated by fungal medications, because those preparations do nothing to reduce the friction," Dr. Dvorine says.
Ointments containing zinc oxide or hydrocortisone work well for jock itch brought on by chafing. On the other hand, if you have jock itch caused by fungus, opt for salves made with miconazole or clotrimazole. They should be used at the first inkling of an itch.
Keep it clean. Sweat harbors bacteria that cause or further irritate itchy genitals, Dr. Dvorine says. If you work up a sweat on the job or during workouts, make sure to bathe as soon as you can. And pack a clean, dry change of clothes if you're showering away from home.
Keep it dry, keep it loose. Dry yourself thoroughly after washing, using a hair dryer, if necessary, set on low, Dr. Dvorine says. And don't squeeze yourself into tight or ill-fitting clothes that might chafe against the skin between your legs or prevent air from flowing.
Ice is nice. If you already have jock itch, soothe your savaged skin with cool compresses, Dr. Lesher says. Wrap a few ice cubes in a towel, or soak a washcloth in cool tap water, he says. "Just make sure you dry off really well when you're done."
Take a load off. While the skin is healing, stay off your feet. "Walking just generates more friction," Dr. Lesher says.
Go naked. Why waste a reason to lounge about in the buff? Providing an opportunity to let jock itch heal is a good excuse to sport your birthday suit. "Try leaving your clothes off," Dr. Lesher says. "You'll aerate the inflamed skin and give it more of a chance to dry out."
How to Get Rid of What's Bugging You
If jock-itch treatments don't seem to work or if the irritation produces an uncontrollable urge to scratch frantically, your genitals may be infested with either lice or scabies, two rather common critters.
Fight the mite. Scabies are microscopic mites that burrow into the skin and infest not only the genitals but other areas of your body—breasts, waist, armpits, hands. Besides itching, they produce skin lesions that can become infected. "We see a lot of scabies cases," Dr. Lesher says. "Any close contact with someone who's infested—it doesn't have to be sex—can give them to you."
Only a prescription drug, such as Elimite or Kwell, can eliminate them, he says, but the whole body, not just the genitals, must be treated.
Force lice to flee. In contrast to scabies, pubic lice are very visible. "You can see those little rascals crawling around down there," Dr. Lesher says. "If you have them, you'll know you have them." They look like tiny white flakes of skin or dandruff, but they move.
An over-the-counter medication called Rid is effective in destroying them, according to Dr. Lesher. If Rid doesn't do the trick within a week, see your doctor for a prescription drug.
See also Genital Sores; Vaginal Itching