We live in a stressful society. Everyone seems to be constantly “on-the-go”—a lifestyle that can lend itself to higher levels of stress. That stress can manifest in several ways, including trouble sleeping, shortness of breath, physical exhaustion, and even a rash. While we typically think of the internal and emotional response to stress, stress has the ability to physically affect our appearance as well.
A stress rash is made up of hives (also known as urticaria). Hives are red, swollen, raised welts on the skin. Often, these hives will itch, and they sometimes can even burn or tingle when touched. Hives can be caused by a variety of issues, including allergens, viral infections, illnesses, and, of course, stress—which is considered to be an “environmental trigger.”
When stress is the trigger, the stress rash can appear anywhere on the body. The hives that make it up can vary greatly in size, and the overall rash can appear blotchy. A stress rash typically doesn’t form from mild, isolated episodes of stress. More often, it will show up on the skin due to frequent or chronic elevated levels of stress.
Stress rashes can be caused by a variety of chemical or hormonal changes in the body that are influenced by higher stress levels. These changes can affect how your body physically responds to certain functions, which in part can make the skin more sensitive and prone to physical problems. People already prone to other skin issues—such as eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis—may find that stress can also aggravate these problems, and make it more difficult for the skin to heal.
Typically, a stress rash will clear up within a few days, and at most within 6 weeks. A single hive may go away within 24 hours, but new ones may continue to appear and clear up over a longer period of time. A stress rash that completely goes away within this 6 week timeframe is considered to be acute. If it doesn’t clear up within 6 weeks, the stress rash is considered to be chronic. It will need to be assessed by a medical professional to create a treatment plan, as it likely will not clear up on its own.
Stress rashes shouldn’t be a cause for concern, as they are common and sometimes can clear up on their own. However, most people choose to turn to some sort of treatment. A person dealing with a stress rash will likely want to deal with it as quickly as possible, due to the uncomfortable nature of the condition. The appearance or physical feelings of the rash may also cause more stress—which can create an unfortunate cycle.
More mild cases of stress rashes can typically be treated at home using over-the-counter products, although it is always recommended to consult with your doctor to establish a treatment plan that works best for you. Typical treatment for mild stress rashes includes a non-prescription antihistamine, which can help relieve any itchiness and inflammation. Common over-the-counter antihistamines include loratadine (Claritin), fexofenadine (Allegra), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), and cetirizine (Zyrtec). A cold compress can also help to relieve some of the itching that can accompany the rash. This will make it more comfortable when waiting for the rash to clear up.
If you use any harsher skin care products (such as chemical or physical exfoliants), you should hold back on using them in the affected area until it clears up. It is also best to avoid direct sunlight and hot showers or baths.
More severe cases—particularly those that last longer than 6 weeks—will need to be assessed by a doctor. Typically, a doctor will prescribe either a strong antihistamine, antibiotics, or steroids. They may also recommend a skin specialist who can help identify the root cause.
As you can probably guess, the best way to prevent a stress rash is to turn to the root cause—chronic or frequent stress. Of course, there is no “one size fits all” option when it comes to working through stress, and you may need to work with a doctor or therapist to determine a plan of action that makes sense for you. Everyone has their own methods and practices that work best, so find ways that work for you, whether they be lifestyle changes, natural treatments, or something else. By taking a hard look at the way you handle stress in your life, you’ll not only prevent potential future stress rashes—you’ll be able to improve your overall physical and mental wellbeing.