Can itchy armpits be a sign of cancer?

Most of the time, itchy armpits are a sign of irritation, infection, or a skin condition, such as eczema or dermatitis. In rare cases, however, itchy armpits may be a sign of cancer.

This article describes two types of cancer that may cause itchy armpits. We also outline six less severe causes of underarm itching, along with tips on how to prevent itching, and when to see a doctor.

Itchy armpits and cancer

Most cases of underarm itching are due to noncancerous skin conditions.

However, lymphomas and inflammatory breast cancer (IBC) are two types of cancer that may cause underarm itching.

Lymphoma

Itchy armpits are usually a sign of irritation or infection.

Lymphocytes are white blood cells that help to protect the body from infection and disease. Lymphoma is cancer that affects these cells.

There are many different types of lymphoma. The two main types are Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Itching affects around 33% of people with Hodgkin lymphoma and some 10% of people with non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Itching occurs due to chemicals called cytokines, which irritate nerve endings in the skin. The immune system releases cytokines in response to lymphoma cells.

Itching may occur at locations where there are lymph nodes. There are hundreds of lymph nodes at different sites throughout the body, including in the armpits.

Other places that may itch include:

areas of skin affected by lymphoma

the lower legs

In some cases, itchiness may affect the whole body.

Other symptoms of lymphoma include:

swollen lymph nodes

fever

chills

sweating at night

unexplained weight loss

lack of energy

Inflammatory breast cancer

IBC is a rare type of breast cancer that may cause itching of the breast and surrounding areas.

Other symptoms of IBC include:

a swollen or enlarged breast

a feeling of warmth or heaviness in the breast

pain or tenderness in the breast

skin changes on the breast, such as swelling, thickening, or dimpling that resembles orange peel

redness that covers more than a third of the breast

a retracted or inverted nipple

Breast tenderness, warmth, swelling, and itching are often signs of less severe illness, such as an infection rather than cancer.

In these cases, if there are no other symptoms, a doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics.

If symptoms do not improve within 7–10 days of antibiotic treatment, people should go back to their doctor who can arrange tests to check for signs of cancer or another condition.

Common causes of itchy armpits

The following six conditions are more common causes of underarm itching.

Intertrigo

Intertrigo is a rash that develops in the folds of the skin. Intertrigo occurs when heat and moisture become trapped between the skin folds, resulting in the growth of yeast, fungi, or bacteria.

The rash itself is usually red or brown and may itch or burn.

Intertrigo commonly develops in the armpits. It may also occur in the following areas:

in the crease of the neck

beneath the breasts

beneath the belly

in the groin

between the toes

A doctor may prescribe a topical steroid cream to ease itching and irritation. In severe cases, they may prescribe an antibiotic or antifungal cream to clear the infection.

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The lymph nodes in the armpits can swell for many different reasons, including infections, immune disorders, and cancer. Learn more here.
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Eczema

The term eczema refers to a group of conditions that cause skin irritation. The most common symptoms are itchiness, redness, and inflammation. These may occur anywhere on the body.

Some people may also find that eczema affects their skin in other ways. Other skin symptoms may include:

dryness

sensitivity

swelling

oozing or crusting

darkened patches

rough, leathery, or scaly patches

Although there is no cure for eczema, some treatments help to relieve symptoms and prevent the condition from worsening.

People should visit a doctor or dermatologist for a diagnosis, and to discuss possible treatments.

Irritant contact dermatitis

Deodorant, soaps, and fabric detergent all have the potential to irritate the skin.

Irritant contact dermatitis (ICD) is a type of eczema. ICD occurs when the skin comes into contact with an irritant.

The condition can develop from a single exposure to a toxic substance or repeated exposure to an irritating substance.

Any substance that comes into contact with the underarm area has the potential to irritate. Examples include:

water

soaps

razors

deodorant

fabric detergent

fabric softener

Itching, burning, and stinging are common symptoms of ICD. In severe cases, the skin may crack and bleed.

People who suspect they have ICD should see a doctor who will likely prescribe treatments to heal the skin and prevent the condition from worsening.

Learn more about the triggers and treatment options for contact dermatitis here.

Heat rash

Heat rash, also known as miliaria, is a skin irritation that usually occurs in hot, humid weather.

Heat rash occurs when the sweat glands clog up and are unable to release sweat. Water trapped within the glands causes them to swell. This results in a painful itching or prickling sensation.

Heat rash usually appears as a cluster of small pimples or blisters. The clusters commonly occur in the armpits, and in other places where skin touches skin.

Areas where heat rash may occur include:

the neck

beneath the breasts

in the creases of the elbows

around the groin

Heat rash usually resolves once the skin has cooled. Applying cold compresses and wearing loose clothing can ease skin irritation.

In some cases, a doctor may prescribe a lotion to help relieve pain and discomfort.

Hyperhidrosis

Hyperhidrosis is a condition in which the sweat glands produce an excessive amount of sweat.

This condition may affect sweat glands across the entire body, or those in specific areas, such as the armpits.

Although hyperhidrosis can cause embarrassment and discomfort, it is a relatively harmless condition. However, hyperhidrosis increases the risk of fungal infections, which can cause underarm itching.

Poor hygiene

The armpits are home to many different bacteria. Poor hygiene practices can lead to a buildup of sweat and dirt on the skin, which causes these bacteria to multiply.

Excess bacteria lead to odor and an increased risk of infection, which may, in turn, lead to itching.

Keeping the underarms clean is important for preventing itchy armpits.

When to see a doctor

People should see a doctor if they think that their underarm itching could be a sign of cancer. Some cancers are more treatable when detected early.

People should also see a doctor if they are concerned about the following:

a bacterial or fungal infection

a skin condition, such as eczema or dermatitis

persistent heat rash

A doctor will examine the underarm and will prescribe any necessary treatments.

In some cases, a doctor may refer the person to a dermatologist for specialist treatment.

Tips for preventing itchy armpits

Showering after exercise may help prevent itchy armpits.

Many causes of itchy armpits are preventable.

The following tips may help to prevent bacterial and fungal infections:

keeping the skin cool and dry

showering after exercise

drying the underarms thoroughly after showering or bathing

wearing sleeveless vests or loose fitting T-shirts

wearing breathable and absorbent materials, such as cotton

The following tips may help to alleviate symptoms of underarm eczema:

avoiding soaps and deodorants that contain harsh chemicals

avoiding shaving with a dry razor

using a gentle patting motion to dry the skin

using fabric detergents for babies and people with sensitive skin

avoiding scented fabric softeners

Summary

Itchy armpits are usually a sign of a noncancerous skin condition. Common examples include skin infections or a chronic skin condition such as eczema. A doctor will be able to provide treatment for these conditions.

Rarely, itchy armpits may be a sign of cancer. Lymphoma and IBC are two cancers that can cause underarm itching.

People should see a doctor if underarm itching occurs alongside any other worrying symptoms.

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