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Stress can cause a rash or hives, and it can also worsen existing skin conditions. Treatment options may include cold compress, antihistamines, steroids, and more.

In isolation, mild forms of stress have little impact on the body. However, frequent or chronic exposure to stress can trigger adverse side effects.

In this article, we discuss the causes of stress rashes. We also explore how these are identified, treated, and prevented.

While often thought of as psychological, stress has physical manifestations as well.

One of the places where stress may have an impact is on a person’s skin. Stress can affect the skin in a number of ways.

Hives caused by stress

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Stress can play a big or small part in peoples daily lives, but it may also manifest in physical ways as well.

Stress can trigger an outbreak of hives that can make up a stress rash.

Hives are raised, red-colored spots or welts. They vary in size and can occur anywhere on the body.

Areas affected by hives can feel itchy. In some cases, they cause a tingling or burning sensation when touched.

These hives can occur due to a variety of different causes, such as:

  • cold or heat exposure
  • infection
  • certain medications, including antibiotics

The most common cause of hives is an allergen entering the body. For example, an individual with hay fever may develop hives as a result of exposure to pollen.

It is also possible for emotional stress to trigger an outbreak of hives. There can be a number of hormonal or chemical changes that occur in response to stress.

These changes can trigger blood vessels to expand and leak, causing red and swollen patches of skin. The resulting hives can be made worse by:

  • consumption of alcohol or caffeine
  • exposure to warm temperatures

Stress may worsen existing skin conditions

Stress can prevent existing skin problems from healing properly. For example, stress can worsen the skin conditions known as psoriasis and eczema.

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Hives may cover the entire body and treatment should be sought to ease the irritation.

Stress rashes may be considered acute if they clear up in less than 6 weeks. If they persist for longer, they are deemed to be chronic.

Typically, rashes will clear up after a few days and it is not necessary to seek treatment. Help should be sought if the rashes take longer than this to clear up.

Experiencing an outbreak of hives can be uncomfortable regardless of when it clears up. In such cases, an individual should seek treatment to ease the irritation caused by hives.

Similarly, most stress rashes are fairly mild, but taking action to manage an outbreak is recommended to lessen its impact.

Particularly, a rash may cause feelings of unhappiness. This may amplify an individual’s stress and worsen the rash further.

Hives may sometimes cover the entire body or be accompanied by:

  • skin peeling or blisters
  • fever
  • pain

If so, it could indicate a more serious condition or allergy, and a doctor should be consulted immediately.

Treatment for a stress rash can usually be done at home, using nonprescription antihistamines. These should help to relieve the itching.

Antihistamines are available for purchase over-the-counter or online.

Alternatively, cooling the skin can also relieve itching. This can be achieved by taking a cool bath or using a cold compress, available for purchase online.

In more severe cases, a doctor may prescribe a short course of:

  • stronger antihistamines
  • steroids
  • antibiotic tablets

If the rashes continue, a doctor may refer a person to a skin specialist, who will continue to prescribe medication while trying to identify triggers for the hives.

Some people may also find their rashes are related to the development of other conditions, such as angioedema or anaphylaxis. This will affect how the rashes are treated, according to the nature of the complication.

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A rash may have an alternative cause such as eczema, which can appear as red patches.

It maybe that a rash is the result of a factor other than stress, such as:

  • Heat rash: Exposure to a hot and humid climate can cause heat rashes to develop.
  • Eczema: This chronic condition can occur at any age. It is characterized by small bumps on the skin that can spread to form dense red patches, known as plaques.
  • Contact dermatitis: This is caused by an allergen, such as particular soaps or jewellry, coming into contact with the skin.
  • Pityriasis rosea: This is a common skin condition typified by a large rash often surrounded by smaller bumps or rashes.
  • Rosacea: Rashes due to rosacea often (but not always) appear on the face and may persist for weeks or months. There is no cure for this condition and rashes can reoccur despite treatment.

It is common to experience stress. The best way to prevent stress rashes is to reduce exposure to stress. Unfortunately, this is not always possible.

Certain stressors, causing the stress, may be unavoidable. These include difficult work situations or relationships. However, it is possible to do things that aid a person’s ability to deal with stress.

One approach is to work with lifestyle factors to minimize the impact of the stress, by:

Stress can also be addressed through therapy or relaxation techniques, which are known to be helpful. One such technique is mindfulness meditation.

Eliminating or reducing the impact of stress can be a difficult task. The most effective strategies will vary depending on the nature of the stressor and the individual.

It will not be possible to always prevent stress from taking a toll on the body. In such circumstances, a stress rash may be unavoidable.

Should a stress rash occur, it is important to minimize the discomfort that it causes and prevent the condition from worsening.

Here are some frequently asked questions about stress rashes.

What does a stress rash look like?

A stress rash can look like raised patches or bumps on the skin. The rash can look pink or red on light skin. It can be harder to see on dark skin.

Why am I suddenly getting stress rashes?

A person may suddenly get a rash in response to emotional stress. This is because stress causes the body to release adrenalin, which can contribute to the development of hives. If stress is frequently causing a rash, a person may wish to contact their doctor for advice on ways to manage stress. Relaxation techniques, meditating, and breathing exercises may help.

How do you get rid of a stress rash?

Antihistamines may help resolve a stress rash. Taking steps to manage stress can also help reduce symptoms or prevent further stress rashes.

How long does a stress rash last?

A stress rash typically lasts 30–60 minutes, though hives can also last for a number of hours or days. A person should contact a doctor for advice if the rash persists for longer. They should seek immediate medical help if they experience a rash alongside other symptoms of an allergic reaction.

Anaphylaxis: Symptoms and what to do

Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction that can be life threatening. The symptoms develop suddenly and include:

  • hives
  • swelling of the face or mouth
  • wheezing
  • fast, shallow breathing
  • a fast heart rate
  • clammy skin
  • anxiety or confusion
  • dizziness
  • vomiting
  • blue or white lips
  • fainting or loss of consciousness

If someone has these symptoms:

  1. Check whether they are carrying an epinephrine pen. If they are, follow the instructions on the side of the pen to use it.
  2. Dial 911 or the number of the nearest emergency department.
  3. Lay the person down from a standing position. If they have vomited, turn them onto their side.
  4. Stay with them until the emergency services arrive.

Some people may need more than one epinephrine injection. If the symptoms do not improve in 5–15 minutes, or they come back, use a second pen if the person has one.

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