Help me stop itching. I'm allergic to cats or water!
January 8, 2014 6:31 PM   Subscribe

I regularly experience itching while at home, primarily on my shins, hips and lower back. I think I'm allergic to something in my water. I've long thought this was caused by soap as showers are when the itching is at it's worst, but after trial and error I've concluded that water is the cause. I've come to this conclusion by using a filter on my shower head which removes the problem after a few weeks. The problem is the showerhead with filter has caused many plumbing problems due to the reduced water pressure, so I'm back to the regular shower head. Is there another way to filter the water without causing plumbing problems, such as at the water heater itself? If not the water, could cats be the cause?

Other factors:

This has been ongoing since childhood, but in the past was just minor itching while showering. Now it is near constant itching while I'm at home. I don't itch while I'm outside of home.

This is not something specific to current apartment (1 year in Hoboken) as I had the same problem in my last apartment (3 years in Queens).

I have a history of cat allergies and took allergy shots a few years ago while living in the Queens apartment.

I have allergies to nearly everything: cats, grass, pollen, trees, mold, and dust in the form of itchy eyes, sneezing, etc. I seem to have mostly outgrown these allergy symptoms by about age 30, which also corresponded to when I moved to NYC area from my past in PA, upstate NY, and rural NJ. I took the allergy shots in anticipation of moving in with the cats, but quit after 6 months because of 2 bad reactions and feeling sick from the shots (stomach pains).

I am living with cats for the first time in my current apartment. While in my old apartment I would visit my girlfriend who owns the cats, but they weren't at my apartment. I only saw them about 1-2 days a week while I lived in Queens apartment.

I have hardwood floors. The cats aren't allowed in the bedroom or bathroom. I generally keep windows closed and use AC in the summer. I use a good filter on the furnace. I have 2 Airocide filters in the apartment.
posted by ridogi to Health & Fitness (25 answers total)
This is a dumb question, but could it be dehydration? I sometimes get terrible itching all over my lower body, especially so in the winter when it's very dry out. Lotion only helps somewhat, but it really goes away if I pay attention to hydration.
posted by schroedinger at 6:32 PM on January 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

You say the itching stopped when you used a water filter, and started again when you stopped using a water filter.

What was the water filter removing?

The one thing that I can think of in water that will make you itch is chlorine, and AFAIK a charcoal filters can remove or remediate chlorine.

You could, for example, be either allergic to chlorine, or it could be drying out your skin (especially in winter, when ambient humidity is lower), which makes you itchy.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:38 PM on January 8, 2014

Seconding possible dehydration and adding: are you showering in hot ( not warm, but hot) water? That dries out my skin and makes me crazy itchy post-shower.
posted by sleepykitties at 6:39 PM on January 8, 2014

Oh, and itching is amplified when I sit on the couch which the cats are regularly on or the guest bed where they have access. They are very affectionate and sit on my lap regularly.

Also, obligatory photo of cats.

I don't have problems with dehydration or dry skin that I know of but I'm willing to try to drink more water.

I do always shower with hot water. I can't stand cold showers or swimming in cold water. I rarely swim but haven't experienced itching after swimming in a pool with chlorine.

I used a few different filters including this one as well as this one which had somewhat better water pressure.
posted by ridogi at 6:47 PM on January 8, 2014

Came in to suggest that you use body lotion after you get out of the shower. Showering in hot water, especially in winter, can really dry out your skin.
posted by gumtree at 6:52 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have cats too, and I'm not allergic a whit and they can make me itch if my skin is dry. It took forever for me to figure out I just needed to drink more water. I think I posted a similar question to AskMe a long time ago, got the "drink water" advice, brushed it off, then finally tried it and BAM no more itchy skin. Worth a shot!
posted by schroedinger at 7:09 PM on January 8, 2014

I do always shower with hot water.

There is warm, and there is hot. Every dermatologist on earth will tell someone with eczema/hives to avoid hot water at all costs, and shower with tepid to warm water.

I will presume you already aggressively moisturise and have some low level cortisone cream for spot itching etc.
posted by smoke at 7:23 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't have problems with dehydration or dry skin that I know of but I'm willing to try to drink more water.

This time of year, in New York/NJ/anywhere really cold, everyone* has problems with dehydration and dry skin. Definitely try to drink more water, and get some serious lotion, and put it on after every shower and possibly before bed as well. It's dry and cold outside, and dry and hot inside, and it's almost impossible to drink enough water to keep up with all that dryness. I would try this for a few days before you start worrying about more complicated problems/fixes. It definitely could be something else, but this is extremely likely to be the answer, and super easy to deal with.

* My 32 year old ex-girlfriend who "didn't believe in dry skin" for the first 31 years of her life was convinced of its existence by the weather here. It's that bad.
posted by dizziest at 7:45 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wonder if these filters are changing the ph of your water. Is your water exceptionally hard or soft to start with? I bet you can buy a water testing kit for not very much to find out; you could even test with/without the filter to see what changes if the filters aren't telling you what they remove.

Allergy-wise, I seem to have some kind of threshold; once I'm reacting to something frequent in my environment(ragweed, I'm looking at you) I react to everything else (say, a random kitty I meet) much more strongly. Is it possible the constant kitty exposure is keeping your immune system ready to attack any possible insult? If so you might try to limit your exposure some (e.g. change clothes right after a kitty lap session).

Does the problem go away when you take an antihistamine that normally controls your allergies?

And lastly, many people have issues with sodium lauryl sulfate. I personally only have a reaction to toothpaste with it, so I don't really know if harder/softer water can change how strong the reaction is for people with skin issues; but maybe it's actually a combo of your unfiltered tap water and your soap that are causing the issue.
posted by nat at 8:23 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

If I understand, you are allergic to cats and you just started living with cats again? And you pretty much roll around with them? And you stopped taking shots because you had a bad reaction, i.e. hypersensitivity? And you're not taking an H1 antihistamine like Zyrtec or an H2 antihistamine like Zantac? You're taking nothing?

It's the cats. And a "doctor, it hurts when I do this" situation.
posted by rhizome at 8:36 PM on January 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Body lotion after the shower or bath, and lots of it. I was getting crazy itchy in the winter and it turned out to be dry skin. It doesn't look dry, it's not cracking but it is dry. Lotion it up!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:55 PM on January 8, 2014

I had this problem before living with cats, but I see how multiple factors including them could be enough to push me into having these reactions.

I haven't have any of my traditional allergy symptoms (sneezing and watery eyes) for almost a decade, even now while living with the cats.

I have a bad history with just about any medicine:
1. Allergy medicines did nothing for me (I tried them all)
2. I always suffer the side effects from medicine.
3. I often get the opposite reaction for medicines that are drowsy / non drowsy.

I'd like to keep away from medicine unless there are no alternatives as it generally makes things worse for me.

I don't use lotion. Most scents really bother my breathing, particularly lotions and scented candles. Is there a lotion that would be as neutral / hypoallergenic as possible? Perhaps from aveda which is where I get shampoo, shaving cream and after shave.
posted by ridogi at 10:22 PM on January 8, 2014

There are a ton of lotions that do not have scents! I recommend Aveeno (lightweight) or Eucerine (for the really thick stuff).
posted by foxfirefey at 10:32 PM on January 8, 2014

Oh there are so many moisturisers, I'm kind of aghast you aren't moisturizing. Get thee to the chemist.
posted by smoke at 10:34 PM on January 8, 2014

Dry skin and itch are not uncommon, even for non-allergic individuals, but it does sound like the cat allergens are exacerbating the issue. Any breakage in the skin barrier (even minor ones that you mightn't realise, such as from using soap (especially with high pH) and/or hot water) allow allergens from the environment to gain access to and be sensed by the immune cells in your skin. Maintaining the barrier (such as through moisturising) will help prevent the itch response.

Look for creams that are good for eczema (e.g. Aveeno). They are made for the sole purpose of maintaining barrier without causing undue irritation.

Also: You can still get barrier breach even when well hydrated.
posted by kisch mokusch at 2:54 AM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Lots of unscented lotions. Spectro E-care for hands and elbows (I have local eczema), Lubriderm for all else. While Spectro is completely unscented, it's not deodorized, so it smells faintly chemical. Works, though, and a tube goes a long way.

I don't recommend the otc cortisone. If it's weak enough to be sold without a prescription, it's too weak to do any good. I'm also hideously allergic to cats, and they make my skin break out and leak. The only solution for me is to be far away from cats.
posted by scruss at 6:03 AM on January 9, 2014

Here's what you do. Finish showering, dry your head with a towel. Apply a layer of gold bond lotion to your still wet self. Add a layer of corn huskers lotion on top of that. Thank me later.
posted by notned at 6:14 AM on January 9, 2014

I'm horribly itchy this winter - more so than usual. I saw my doctor and she gave me this awesome cream that makes it a lot better. Regular unscented lotion helps too, just not as much. I shower with the lowest heat I can stand and dry off fast and put lotion on as quickly as I can after towel-drying.

It helps a lot.
posted by bunderful at 7:14 AM on January 9, 2014

I don't know which filter you are using, but I've had very good results with Aquasana showerhead filters, in that they didn't seem to muck with water pressure at all. Of course you have to buy replacement filters twice a year, but it was worth it. I go the non-shower head one.

Seconding figuring out if your water is hard or not, we have very hard water here, and a water softener was magic for my skin and hair. I use way less soap and shampoo and it rinses far better and cleaner. Lotion after a shower is still mandatory as our air is super dry, but the water softener was key.
posted by tatiana131 at 9:08 AM on January 9, 2014

Like others, I have a suspicion you are dealing with excema/atopic dermatitis. Sometimes there is a rash, sometimes not and it's related to allergies, of which it sounds like you have many. I find my excema is exceptionally itchy in hot water, which is why you may think it's the water. Of course the best course of treatment is to avoid things you are allergic to.

Home remedies include showering in the coldest water you can stand (which might not be that cold) and using lots of lotion. I prefer the Aveeno unscented lotions and I find their Eczema Therapy Cream works pretty well. Most dermatologists will recommend putting on lotion right after you shower, while your skin is still slightly damp.

If the itching gets to be too bad to bear (not uncommon when it covers a large part of your body!), topical steroids can help. Hydrocortisone can be purchased over the counter in low concentrations. If you see a dermatologist, they can prescribe the more heavy duty topical steroids for you. CAUTION: Do not use any topical steroids over a large portion of your body without the supervision of a doctor.
posted by geeky at 10:51 AM on January 9, 2014

Do you experienced similar itchy symptoms when exercising or when your body and skin are heated up? Have you been tested for urticaria? There are both heat-induced and water-induced (generally contact with chlorine) forms.

Regarding anti-histamines, when was the last time that you took one?

The old antihistamines (like the active ingredient in Benadryl) cross into your brain which is what makes you drowsy; the newer antihistamines (Loratadine/Claritin, Cetirizine/Zyrtec, and Fexofenadine/Allegra) are larger molecules are don't cross into your brain and therefore don't make you drowsy. If you can't find anything else that works, these newer lines of medication (all of which are now thankfully available as generic medications) may help control allergy-related itching.
posted by the_wintry_mizzenmast at 12:18 PM on January 9, 2014

Aveeno is the most gentle stuff on the planet. Available everywhere.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:19 PM on January 9, 2014

This all looks helpful, thanks for the responses.

Urticaria and Eczema don't seem to match as I don't have any visible symptoms except for red skin when I can't stop scratching.

I've just started to take a shower as cool as I can still stand (which is still pretty warm), am drinking more water, and picked up Aveeno lotion. That is the same brand of soap I use in the shower as that has led to the least itching, so that seems to be a good one to start with.
posted by ridogi at 3:59 PM on January 9, 2014

As I said before, with atopic dermatits you don't always get a rash! My shins can itch like mad, but there's no rash.

"Itching may start even before the rash appears. Atopic dermatitis is often called the "itch that rashes" because the itching starts, and then the skin rash follows as a result of scratching." - PubMed
posted by geeky at 8:42 AM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've dropped the Aveeno and am having good results with Lush Dream Cream, which is vegan and not tested on animals.
posted by ridogi at 12:27 PM on February 4, 2014

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