Nothing worse than having an itch you can't scratch
September 10, 2010 3:21 PM   Subscribe

How do astronauts and other trained professionals deal with itches while in pressurized suits for long durations of time? Does NASA make astronauts undergo "tickle conditioning" to reduce the stress caused by having an itch one can't scratch, or, likewise, the military with fighter pilots? Do the subjects just get used to the feeling, so that the itch deadens? Are antihistamines or similar drugs administered pre-flight? Has weightlessness been found to affect these and related parts of the nervous system that manage sensations of pain, discomfort, heat, cold, etc.?
posted by Blazecock Pileon to Science & Nature (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: In EVA helmets, there's a little foamy nubbin called a valsalva device (you can see one on the upper right here) that's for blocking off your nostrils so you can make your ears pop. It's also handy for scratching an itch on your face.
posted by zsazsa at 3:36 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hey, this was an interesting system, so I Googled for "astronaut itch" and found this exchange from astronaut Sandy Magnus:
When you're wearing a full spacesuit - what happens if you get an itch? Can you scratch it, or do you have to just ignore it? Has anyone invented any clever itch-scratching tools? -- Caspian Sunerton-Burl, 6, North Wales, UK

Unfortunately you are exactly correct. You just have to ignore it, unless somehow you can wiggle around and get it scratched. As far as I know there are no really good itch-scratching tools. Got any good ideas?
posted by nomadicink at 3:39 PM on September 10, 2010

er, interesting QUESTION
posted by nomadicink at 3:39 PM on September 10, 2010

I don't remember if it addresses it specifically, but Mary Roach's new book 'packing for mars' addresses a lot of similar questions about the logistics of day to day functions in space (i.e. pooping, eating, boredom, etc...) The book definitely talks about them going through a lot of other psychological testing if they can stand long periods of being bored, working in short bursts of stressful situations, and being able to get along with others in cramped situations.

If you search through the book here using the search inside feature, search for 'suit' and click on the 5th result you'll see this

'In reality maybe 1% of an astronaut's career takes place in space and 1% of that is done in a pressure suit'

It's possible it's not a real issue because they really aren't in the suits for that long (only takeoff, landing, and spacewalks.)
posted by jourman2 at 3:42 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, astronauts on spacewalks get screwed on the ability to scratch itches.

Here's a video from a NASA guy describing the technique zsazsa mentions.

Itches often do fade away though. I wear PPE for handling radioactive stuff and for all but the most severe itches, I ignore them and they go away. Though sometimes the urge is really strong and I pull off the gloves, scan my hands for radiation, and scratch away. It would suck not to have that option available. A price I would be totally willing to pay for a spacewalk though.
posted by pseudonick at 3:44 PM on September 10, 2010

Response by poster: It's possible it's not a real issue because they really aren't in the suits for that long (only takeoff, landing, and spacewalks.)

I guess I was thinking about the moon missions and U-2 and SR-71 flights, where those individuals are in pressurized suits for long stretches, sometimes hours at a time.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:51 PM on September 10, 2010

No pressurized suits, but: in surgery, those who are scrubbed and gowned consider themselves sterile only from "nipples to navel" in the front. That's a lot of untouchable body area. They usually have to wait out the itch.
posted by moira at 4:14 PM on September 10, 2010

In high school marching band, when we were standing at attention we were expected to not move at all and just 'enjoy the itch' (After all, you may never have an itch in that particular spot ever again!). It's annoying at first, but you learn to deal with it. So I would assume that fighter pilots and astronauts have more training and self-control than I do, and are exceptionally prepared to 'enjoy it'.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 4:35 PM on September 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Similarly in zazen. You deal.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 5:26 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I didn't watch the whole thing again to eb sure, but I recall that in this video the U-2 pilot says he just has to ignore it.
posted by procrastination at 6:34 PM on September 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's a truckload of training these people do before showtime. They'll have itches during training, too, so they've dealt with it and developed their own mental coping strategies long before they're floating in space.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:47 PM on September 10, 2010

I wear anti-contamination suits sometimes too. It's all mental. You make it go away.

You can pretty much make someone's nose itch when they're all buried in PPE just by asking them if their nose itches. Once you realize that, you can just will yourself not to itch. As long as it's not a loose stiff thread or something in your suit poking you. That's maddening, and can sometimes actually be worth putting the job on hold to come out and get a more comfortable suit.

I've found that mosquito bites itch more the more you scratch, though, so the suit actually helps.
posted by ctmf at 7:30 AM on September 11, 2010

I'll chime in with "you learn to ignore it" too. I work with herpes virus and invariably at some point after putting on gloves and opening up a stock of infectious virus inside a cell culture hood, some part of your face will start to seriously itch (like if you had fiberglass on or in your nose). Mind you, it's not quite as bad as spacing yourself to scratch...

ctmf: That is evil and I've got to try it out.
posted by The Bishop of Turkey at 8:41 AM on September 11, 2010

It's all mental.

Indeed, and reading this thread has made me crawling with itchiness.
posted by yeti at 2:01 PM on September 11, 2010

Morgans' "unless you can wiggle and get it scratched" probably covers more than you'd think. If you wear a buttoned-up lab coat, for example, you can get do a surprising amount just by bending your elbows outward slightly, hunching your shoulders forward and working them from side to side, which pulls the fabric taut across your back. Your shoulders can scratch most of the sides of your head, and even your nose if you wear glasses. A more rigid suit like the current EVA suit would work even better: you might not be able to scratch through the suit, but I suspect you could scratch with it.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:24 PM on September 11, 2010

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