Pruritus: a question of spelling

Occasionally over the years, including twice so far this year, I have noticed the word “pruritis” in The Journal. The spelling should, of course, be “pruritus”, which is Latin for “itch”.

The mistake is an easy one to make because hardly any medical conditions have names ending in “-itus” whereas hundreds end in “-itis”, which is the standard ending for the fancy medical names given to inflammatory conditions.

Indeed, if you come across an unfamiliar “-itis” word you can normally assume that it is some sort of inflammation. But be careful because there are exceptions.

For example, if you cannot work out which organ of the body is affected by wapitis, that is because it is actually the plural of a commonly used native American name for the American elk.

(And if you don’t know how to pronounce it, memorise the Ogden Nash couplet: “There goes the Wapiti / Hippety-hoppity!”)

A few other “-itis” words that look like inflammatory conditions turn out to be the names of genera of ferns (eg, Bolbitis, Phyllitis), flowering plants (eg, Sideritis, Turritis) or insects (eg, Ceratitis, Limenitis).

Or skunks. The skunk genus Mephitis has borrowed its name from a term used for a foul smell, especially one rising from the earth, as from a swamp. It ultimately derives from the the name of a Roman goddess, Mefitis, who was the personification of the earth’s poisonous vapours.

But let us return to the itch. Although it can be a symptom of many inflammatory skin diseases pruritus is not itself such a condition and it also has many non-inflammatory causes.

These include dry skin, Hodgkin’s disease, jaundice, thyroid illness, hyperparathyroidism, uraemia, diabetes mellitus, iron deficiency anaemia, cholestasis, cancer and pregnancy. It can also be a side effect of drug therapy.

When the editor reads this piece, she will no doubt be itching to remind her staff to be more careful with their spelling. But, as I have said, it is an easy mistake.

I can think of only two other “-itus” diseases — tinnitus (Latin for “ringing”) and diabetes mellitus (Latin for “honey-sweet” diabetes).

At a pinch you could perhaps include rubitus (Latin for “rumbling”), a term sometimes used to describe a noise in the intestines, and exitus (Latin for “went out”), which is a pretentious medical euphemism for death, but neither of these is strictly a medical condition.

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