Reviewed by Whitney White, MS CMHC, NCC., LPC
We’ve all experienced the physical reaction to stress– a racing heart, sweaty palms, quickened breath, etc. But, a symptom of stress that is often overlooked affects your skin. If you’ve experienced a rash with an unknown origin or one that did not last long and wasn’t all that bad, chances are you had a stress rash.
So What Is A Stress Rash?
The simple definition of a stress rash is when you experience any inflammation or irritation on any part of your skin, triggered by the stress you are experiencing at that moment. The reality is that stress rashes are not extraordinary. It turns out, if you were already suffering from some sort of skin flare-up, stress would likely exacerbate it – making it look worse.
What Does A Stress Rash Look like?
Quite often, stress rashes or hives appear as swollen bumps on the skin, similar to when you get a mosquito bite. Appearing in the form of irregular itchy welts, the location and the size can vary greatly. You’re looking for patches of little swollen balloons, appearing pink or red on lighter skin and reddish-purple on darker skin tones. Many times, stress rash appears in clusters. These typically form behind the neck, over a part of your face, the sensitive skin in your arms, the neck, the chest, etc.
Can Stress Make You Itch?
In short, yes! Many times, a stress rash will go unnoticed until you start to get bothered by the itchiness. You’ll often find stress rashes pop up on areas of your body that have always been susceptible. For example, areas where you have traditionally had psoriasis patches or where your body gets hot, moist, or must deal with an invasive accessory. An invasive accessory could be anything similar to a wristband, a health accessory that stays stuck to your skin, not allowing it to breathe, etc. Of course, this could be an area often exposed to allergens or whatever triggers your particular case.
Should You Be Concerned?
We all have our share of stress in our daily lives. As you would imagine, stress rashes and hives are frequently experienced. Research shows that women experience emotions more strongly than men, which could explain why women tend to be more susceptible to stress-related rashes than men. Even still, you’re less likely to experience them in your teens. Most often, the onset of nervous rashes occurs during or after the 30s and the 40s (sometimes, even 50s). Make no mistake, however, the greater the amount of stress you experience, the greater the likelihood of developing skin rashes, and the higher the intensity.
Causes Behind Stress Rashes
Essentially, a stress rash is a chemical reaction in the body. When you’re stressed, your body produces a stress hormone known as cortisol. The greater the amount of stress experienced, the higher the production of cortisol. These higher cortisol levels, in turn, lead to greater oil production. This excess oil can lead to acne breakouts and skin inflammation.
The histamine response goes up just as our sympathetic nervous system is revving up, and a general feeling of discomfort and itchiness begins. Precisely why the skin responds by breaking into hives and rashes is still a question of research. Outwardly, a direct connection between the skin reacting and the distant stressful environment may not be easy to make. But, there is a certainty that there is a trigger there.
How Do You Treat A Stress Rash?
Often going in the direction of the wreck comes with the least collateral damage. This means your best bet is to leave your stress bump, rashes, or hives alone. You will likely find that they will disappear. If you can resist the temptation to itch, they will vanish without a trace. However, if you itch and break the skin, there is a chance you could be left with a scar. The good news is that typically stress rashes only last between a few hours and a couple of days.
Recurrence And Over The Counter Alternatives
Stress rashes tend to come back, especially if you begin to experience unmanageable stress again. This is because it’s your body’s way of dealing with the histamine response to the excess oil created by the extra cortisol. If simply leaving it alone is not enough, there are measures you can take to reduce the inflammation so that healing can occur. One option is to take over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl, Zyrtec, or even a steroidal cream, which is supposed to reduce the inflammation at the application site. These over-the-counter medications can be found at a local pharmacy.
Where your stress rash is will determine which method will help you relieve the itching sooner. For instance, a steroid cream may work on sensitive skin. But, if your stress rash is on the soles of your feet, the cream would not be able to penetrate the skin. In this case, taking an oral antihistamine, such as Claritin or Allegra, may be a better option for itch relief since these antihistamines work by blocking the histamine pathways. With those pathways closed, new hives cannot form.
The itching associated with a stress rash is often compared to the itching that accompanies chickenpox. Therefore, milk compresses may be another option to keep in mind as the fat in whole milk will work to soothe the irritation in your stress rash.
Another way to treat stress rash is to avoid it altogether. This can be done by changing your situation and reducing your stress levels. If stress is unavoidable, you should try to stay away from an excessively hot or moist ambiance. If you know which skin areas are prone to stress rash, let that part of your skin be exposed to air. This could mean changing into loose clothing. Keeping cool is important since heat aggravates stress rashes by translating into pressure on the affected site.
Don’t Let Your Guard Down, Or Should You?
If the rash, bumps, or hives you are experiencing fails to go away on its own, you may be suffering from something entirely different from a stress rash. Do not hesitate to consult a dermatologist if you suspect it’s something else. However, be sure to account for the default stress level in your life. Even if you happen to be on vacation in the middle of nowhere, you could still be stressed. It could even be that the stressor lives in the back of your mind, and you may break out in hives somewhere between Cancun and Ibiza. It’s always best to talk to your dermatologist and get it checked out if you’re not sure.
Strategies And Initiatives For Dealing With Stress Rash
If your anxiety stress rash has become a problem, consider employing some stress-reducing initiatives to reduce your overall stress levels. This could include incorporating yoga, meditation, and even mindfulness into your daily routine. Other helpful initiatives include limiting your screen time and limiting the time you spend on social media. Exercise is another great way to combat stress. Walking and physical activity are most certainly going to help your situation, no matter how aggravated.
When Should You Seek Emergency Treatment?
Stress rashes are hardly ever a serious complication on their own. But if you are experiencing inflammation in your lips or throat with difficulty breathing, you should seek immediate help. There is a chance that you may be dealing with an unknown condition.
Do’s And Don’ts
The most important thing you can do is leave the rash alone. Giving in and scratching will make it easier for bacteria to enter the picture through small scrapes and lacerations on the broken skin. Itching is also problematic since you will release a lot of histamine with your scratching. What that histamine will do is create more rashes, leading to even more itchiness. Itchiness and scratching would feed off of one another, and the vicious cycle would torment you ever more strongly.
When it comes to a stress rash, it helps locate secondary factors that may be aggravating the condition. Could you do something about the environmental triggers that uniquely apply to you? For example, you could move indoors to avoid exposure to pollen. You could also take measures to prevent animal dander, a certain food ingredient, etc. from triggering your condition further. Keep in mind, sometimes, even environmental changes (such as the amount of sunlight) can go on to affect the severity and the duration of your suffering.
It is especially important to make it a point to take care of your skin daily. This regimen could include regular cleaning, hydrating, and moisturizing routine that lets your skin breathe better and traps in moisture.
Understanding your stress rash and what triggers it requires keen observation (and recording is important). Keep a journal of activities. The idea is to single out stress as the reason behind your nervous rashes. It is important to rule out any other possible factors behind your skin rash. For instance, changing your laundry detergent, starting a new medication, eating something new to you, etc. The question is, did you do anything that could have triggered your condition?
While it can be a pain, there are ways to cope with the itchiness that accompanies a stress rash. Cool compresses are an option if you’re dealing with a rather large area or if the situation isn’t manageable. Ice packs work to reduce inflammation and the urge to itch. Keep in mind if you opt for over-the-counter antihistamines, you may experience drowsiness or other side effects (if you can’t locate them on the packaging, make sure to look it up online). Therefore, take necessary precautions such as not driving immediately after taking it or attending to other important cognitive activities.
If you find yourself suddenly having rashes as life throws stress your way, chances are you have a stress rash. If you think you are suffering from a stress rash, take this online stress test to determine if you are at risk of a stress-related illness. The bottom line is that we all experience stress. If you feel that you’re having difficulty managing your stress, consider talking to a licensed counselor that can give you guidance on how to reduce your stress level (and hopefully prevent your stress rash from showing up again).