Why do bug bites and cuts itch when scratching them clearly doesn't help us survive? Did our early ancestors need to rely on this itching sensation, or is it just that the receptors for itches just happen to be stimulated by histamine?

  • $\begingroup$ I guess itching, just like pain, is a signal to the organism that some part is injured. $\endgroup$
    – biogirl
    Commented Jul 10, 2015 at 8:44

3 Answers 3


Scratching is getting potentially poisonous or at least irritant substances out and removes lodged insects like ticks.

Removing subcutane parasites like scapies mites is not feasible without scratching yourself bloody.

I don't see how "scratching them clearly doesn't help us survive". Behaviors and skin reactions evolved way before our modern hygiene and parasite cures.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Please support your answer with references. $\endgroup$
    – SolarLunix
    Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ Can you please add some references to your answer? $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Jul 14, 2015 at 5:28


While itching and pain are related, research indicates that these sensations are caused by distinct nociceptors. Essentially, wounds itch because histamine is released as part of the wound healing process, and histamine activates those itch nociceptors. So perhaps the more apt question is just "why does histamine cause itching?" (See also answer to What is itching?)

As of now, we might only be able to speculate.

Educated guessing

The following are a few hypotheses:

  1. Selecting for more specific itch nociceptors, which would incorporate some mechanism to prevent itching of wounds specifically, doesn't help influence survival enough to be useful, or would impose a cost more severe than the benefit.
  2. Itching wounds may have caused ancestral species to remove contaminants, IE by licking them.
  3. It could be a vestigial adaptation, a simple signal saying to the original "something happened here, do something about it!"


  • $\begingroup$ Now I'm all itchy. $\endgroup$
    – jzx
    Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 11:05

Some insects produce chemicals to induce itching in order to further spread eggs laid in the wound. Some micro-organisms do the same, a cut may be infected.

It's perfectly possible that the urge to scratch is not beneficial in all situations but simply a majority of them. This would be more than enough reason to have the impulse stick around, evolutionary speaking.

The body does not differentiate very often between externally and internally produced chemicals.

For example, I am diabetic and take insulin, a hormone related to blood sugar. It is introduced to my blood stream from without, but my body reacts to it as if my pancreas had produced it, which is what happens in healthy individuals.

In an organic system which coordinates internally via chemical signals (hormones), it is impractical for parts of the system to attempt to screen out externally introduced chemicals, such as from a bug bite.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for your effort on trying to answer the question. Can you add some external references to support the claims in your answer? We always appreciate external reference to support all answers/questions on BiologySE - thanks for your contributions! $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 11:52

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