What Is Dermatographia?

Medically reviewed by Debra Sullivan, PhD, MSN, CNE, COI on March 9, 2017Written by Kristeen Cherney

Overview

Dermatographia, which is sometimes called “skin writing,” refers to a condition in which seemingly minor scratches turn into temporary but significant reactions. This condition is also called dermographism or dermatographic urticaria. Approximately 5 percent of people have this condition, and it’s most common in older children and younger adults.

Scratches can irritate your skin, but they tend to heal quickly. Some scratches are white against the skin, while others redden slightly. With dermatographia though, the scratches worsen, causing deep wounds or even allergy-like reactions.

Dermatographia is most often treated with antihistamines to reduce itchiness and overall discomfort. There’s no cure for this condition, although the symptoms don’t last long. Rare cases require more in-depth medical treatment from a dermatologist.

Symptoms of dermatographia

Signs of dermatographia occur when your skin gets scratched. Symptoms don’t appear on their own. Instead, these are reactions to scratches themselves. These symptoms can appear for the first time without warning.

The symptoms of dermatographia may include:

  • redness
  • raised marks on the skin that look like writing
  • deep wounds
  • welts that look like hives
  • itchiness
  • swelling, or inflammation

Symptoms usually last for about 30 minutes at a time. In rare cases, symptoms last for a day or longer. However, the condition of dermographism itself can last for months or years.

Symptoms may also worsen in extreme temperatures. Hot and cold, dry weather can increase the incidence of dermographism. Warm water from hot showers, baths, and saunas can also aggravate symptoms.

Picture of dermatographia

dermatographia

What causes dermatographia?

The exact causes of dermatographia aren’t known. The condition is thought to be triggered by:

  • stress
  • a history of allergies
  • excessive rubbing from clothing or bedding
  • infections
  • certain medications, including penicillin
  • exercises that cause excessive skin rubbing (such as wrestling)

Learn more: Identify and care for an amoxicillin rash »

Though its causes are not known, there are suspected risk factors for dermatographia. You may be at an increased risk if you:

  • have dry skin
  • have a history of dermatitis, which is a skin inflammation
  • are a young adult
  • experience frequent scratches of the skin
  • have thyroid disease
  • have a nerve disorder or an internal illness that causes itchy skin

The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that about 3 percent of adults have some form of dermatitis. Dermatographia is often grouped in this category, though its estimates are a bit higher. Children are more susceptible to dermatitis in general, while teens and young adults are more likely to develop dermatographia.

How is dermatographia diagnosed?

Dermatographia is diagnosed with a skin test. Your doctor will likely use a tongue depressor and lightly drag it across a portion of your skin to see if any adverse reactions occur. This test is done at the doctor’s office, and it’s typically diagnosed within one visit. Your doctor may also check other areas of your skin for marks.

No blood tests or X-rays are required to diagnose this condition.

Treatments for dermatographia

Unless dermatographia becomes chronic, you may not necessarily require medical treatment. Chronic means that it is ongoing. Symptoms are typically treated with over-the-counter medications, though alternative remedies may also help. Don’t take any new medications, herbs, or supplements without asking a doctor first.

Conventional treatments

Over-the-counter allergy medications can help treat dermatographia symptoms. Examples include diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and cetirizine (Zyrtec), both of which may cause drowsiness. These are antihistamines that prevent the body from producing histamine out of an adverse response to chemicals and allergens. Loratadine (Claritin) and fexofenadine (Allegra) are other types of antihistamines, but they take longer to take effect. Taking a regular antihistamine may prevent symptoms of dermatographia before they begin.

In severe cases, a doctor may recommend phototherapy. This is a type of outpatient radiation therapy designed specifically for skin disorders. It’s also used in the treatment of psoriasis.

Alternative treatments

Alternative remedies may also offer relief for skin writing. Remedies applied directly to the skin seem to offer the most potential. These include:

  • oatmeal
  • tea tree oil
  • aloe vera
  • rice bran broth

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) says there is an extreme lack of evidence for the following treatments and remedies:

  • borage oil
  • fish oil
  • multivitamins
  • primrose oil
  • vitamins B-6, B-12, D, and E

There is no solid evidence that acupuncture helps dermatitis or any other skin condition.

Lifestyle therapies

Stress management may also reduce the risk of dermatographic flare-ups. Yoga and meditation utilize deep breathing exercises that can decrease stress. Regular exercise can also boost feel-good endorphins in the brain that can, in turn, prevent stress before it happens.

According to the NCCIH, relaxation techniques tend to be most helpful in children with the condition. If these types of lifestyle changes fail to improve your stress levels and subsequent skin symptoms, see your doctor for help.

Learn more: 6 calming yoga poses for kids »

Outlook

Although the symptoms of dermatographia don’t last long, the condition may persist for years. This means that you may experience symptoms repeatedly if you regularly have scratches on your skin.

If your symptoms don’t respond well to over-the-counter drugs or remedies, see a dermatologist for help. They specialize in diseases of the skin and may recommend prescription medications or ointments that can offer relief.

Prevention

Despite the discomfort dermatographia may cause, the negative reactions may be preventable. Consider the following lifestyle changes and preventive measures you can take:

  • Avoid itchy clothes and bedding. Wool and synthetic materials are common skin irritants.
  • Use soaps without fragrance. These added chemicals and dyes can make your skin itchy.
  • Take cool or lukewarm showers.
  • Use a humidifier during cool, dry months.
  • Moisturize your skin daily. For best results, use a moisturizing lotion or cream within a few minutes of bathing.
  • Avoid scratching your skin if possible. Treating itchy skin can help avoid scratches.
  • Manage your stress. Exercise, adequate sleep, and meditation can alleviate a stressful lifestyle.
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