A leading dermatologist explains why the neck sometimes itches during or after exercise.
Itchy neck, especially the back, during exercise driving you nuts?
Or maybe the back of your neck, or front, doesn’t start itching like mad till after you’re done exercising.
Either way, the cause of all that itching about your neck is the same, be it during, or after, your exercise session.
Have you noticed that the itching of your neck happens only during certain kinds of exercise?
Perhaps it happens most prevalently during workouts in which you sweat like crazy, such as a fierce workout on the revolving staircase, or a lot of hard incline running on the treadmill.
“When we exercise, our muscles use energy to perform the muscular contractions that move our body parts,” says Neal Schultz, MD, a dermatologist with a private practice in the NYC area, and founder of dermTV.com.
“In the course of muscle contractions, energy is used somewhat inefficiently, which causes the creation of heat first in the contracting muscles, and then around the muscles, which starts to raise our body temperature.”
For this to occur, you need not be exercising to the point of exhaustion, nor do you need to be doing cardio necessarily.
Dr. Schultz continues, “But the body is very smart, and in its eternal effort to maintain homeostasis and a constant (98.6F) temperature inside our body, the body brings blood from the inside of our body which is rising above 99 degrees, to the skin which is normally 80-90 degrees, in an effort to try to remove the heat that is building up from muscle action and metabolism.”
So as your exercise intensity on the revolving staircase, or in that group fitness class, starts escalating, this homeostatic process starts kicking up more and more.
“By sending more blood to the relatively cooler skin, the heat is more easily dissipated to the environment to help maintain normal internal body temperature and prevent it from rising,” continues Dr. Schultz.
“But when we bring that heat to our skin, that heat causes a small amount of inflammation in the skin, which causes special cells in the skin which contain a lot of histamine (called mast cells) to release their histamine as part of the body’s way to fight and correct this ‘unnatural’ temperature increase in the skin.
“It is the release of this histamine in the skin that causes the itching.”
So hence, your neck starts itching at some point into the exercise.
Other parts of your body may also be itching, but what can make the neck, especially the back, itch the most, or be the only part that’s itching, is that for some people, a lot of heat and sweat get built up in this region of the body.
Plus, if you have a ponytail or a clump of hair smothering your neck, this adds to the heat, and compounds the itching problem because now, you have moist, matted hair adding to the picture.
Start scratching, and you further increase the production of the histamines: more itchiness.
Solution for an itchy neck from exercise?
See what you can do with your hair as far as keeping it off your neck.
Have a towel with you to periodically pat your neck dry. Don’t scratch your neck.
You can also take an over-the-counter antihistamine 30 to 60 minutes prior to exercising, though a side effect may be drowsiness, in which case, a physician can prescribe an antihistamine without this side effect.
Topical lotions can be applied after exercise to calm the itching of your neck, if patting it dry and avoiding scratching don’t help.
Dr. Schultz has been treating his patients’ dermatologic conditions for 30+ years, with particular emphasis in skin cancer prevention and treatment, acne treatment and laser surgery.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.