Willan's itch and other causes of pruritus in the elderly

Jon R Ward, Jeffrey D Bernhard
International Journal of Dermatology 2005, 44 (4): 267-73
Itch in the elderly presents a diagnostic and therapeutic challenge. A thorough history, review of systems, and physical examination are critical to determining its cause. Examination of the skin may be misleading. There are frequently only secondary lesions, eczematous changes, lichenification, and excoriation, which may be misdiagnosed as a primary dermatitis. Xerosis may be the cause, but it is sometimes merely coincidental. If primary lesions are present, a skin biopsy can enable a diagnosis to be made. Systemic causes of itch, such as cholestasis, uremia, hyperthyroidism, medications, or lymphoma, must be considered. If the cause remains elusive, idiopathic itching of the elderly or so-called "senile pruritus" may be considered. However, we propose to discard the term "senile pruritus", which can be offensive and frightening. We propose to replace it with "Willan's itch". Robert Willan (1757-1812) is honored as one of the founders of modern dermatology thanks to his book, On Cutaneous Diseases, and its morphological approach to skin disease. He was probably the first to give a good clinical description of itching in the elderly. The diagnosis of Willan's itch should be reserved for generalized pruritus in the absence of xerosis or other recognizable cause. The pathophysiology of this form of pruritus is poorly understood, but it is likely that age-related changes of the skin, cutaneous nerves, and other parts of the nervous system play a role. Anecdotal and limited data suggest that gabapentin, cutaneous field stimulation, serotonin antagonists, and ultraviolet B phototherapy may attenuate itch in some of these patients.

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