Everyone deals with stress from time to time, and stress can have an effect on more than just your emotional health. Stress can also cause physical symptoms, such as a rash — and having this symptom can amplify your stress.
Many people will experience a stress rash at least once in their lives. Luckily, a stress-induced rash generally isn’t cause for concern. In fact, it can often be treated easily at home.
If you have a preexisting skin condition, such as psoriasis or rosacea, you may also find that stress worsens your symptoms. If this occurs, stress is considered a trigger.
We explain how to identify a stress rash from other types of rashes, and the best way to treat one.
Stress rashes often take the form of hives, or welts. Hives can appear anywhere on the body. Areas affected by hives are generally red, raised, and swollen. These blotchy areas can be as small as a pencil tip or as large as a dinner plate.
Sometimes, these patches may connect to form even larger welts. These welts are known as wheals and can range in size from less than a centimeter to giant patches covering large areas of the skin.
Hives can also appear as general skin swelling that develops in one place on your body. This section of swelling may disappear and then appear somewhere else.
Areas affected by hives will likely itch. You may also experience a tingling or burning sensation when touching the affected areas.
A single hive generally fades in about 24 hours. But new hives may form as old hives disappear. If you have multiple hives, you may experience these symptoms for about 6 weeks. This is considered a bout of acute hives.
Though less common, your symptoms may persist beyond 6 weeks. If this happens, your hives are considered chronic.
Hives are often the result of your immune system reacting to an allergen. Hives can also be caused by other factors, like a viral infection, illness, or environmental trigger. Stress is considered to be an environmental trigger.
The most common food allergens include:
Other environmental triggers, other than stress, include:
- hot and cold temperatures
When you’re stressed, it isn’t uncommon to experience a flare-up related to an existing skin condition. This is because your body releases extra chemicals, like neuropeptides and neurotransmitters, when you’re stressed.
These chemicals can change how your body responds to various functions. This change in response can cause inflammation, sensitivity, and other discomfort to the skin.
Sometimes hives go away on their own without treatment. Otherwise, hives can generally be treated at home. The most common treatment for hives is an over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine. Antihistamines can relieve symptoms like itching.
Common OTC antihistamines include:
You may also find relief by using a cool compress on the affected areas. Soaking in a cool bath or taking a cool shower may also help.
If your symptoms worsen or last longer than 6 weeks, you should consult your doctor. Hives that last beyond 6 weeks are considered chronic and may go away within a year.
Your doctor may prescribe one of the following to treat severe or chronic hives:
- prescription-strength antihistamines
- corticosteroids, like prednisone (Deltasone)
- antibiotics, like dapsone (Aczone)
- an injectable type of omalizumab (Xolair)
- other medications that fight redness and swelling
If you experience swelling of the lips or face, trouble breathing, or wheezing, you should seek immediate medical attention. These can be life-threatening complications, and you’ll likely need a shot of epinephrine for treatment.
If your rash is tied to a preexisting condition, such as psoriasis or rosacea, talk with your doctor. They can evaluate your current treatment regimen and may be able to make adjustments if needed.
It’s possible to confuse stress rash with other common skin conditions. These include:
- heat rash
- pityriasis rosea
- contact dermatitis
Here’s what you need to know:
If you live or work in hot, humid conditions, you may be experiencing heat rash. This happens when your pores become blocked and sweat is unable to escape.
The most common form of heat rash, miliaria crystallina, causes clear or white bumps. Miliaria rubra can cause red bumps similar to hives.
Unlike hives, heat rash almost always clears up on its own. It typically goes away in less than a week. But consult your doctor if you begin to experience:
Pityriasis rosea is a common type of rash that often goes away on its own. It typically starts with a large patch of red, raised skin. This “mother patch” or “herald patch” may be surrounded by small red bumps, or “daughter patches,” that are typically oval in shape. It’s also sometimes called a Christmas tree rash.
It’s unclear what causes this rash, but it’s most common during the spring and fall. It may or may not be itchy.
Pityriasis rosea typically fades without treatment in 6 to 8 weeks. During this time, you can use an OTC anti-itch medication, like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or cetirizine (Zyrtec) to ease your symptoms.
If your symptoms worsen or persist, consult your doctor. They may be able to prescribe prescription-strength anti-itch medication.
Rosacea is another common skin condition. Depending on the type, it often causes small, red, sometimes pus-filled bumps to form on the skin. The skin can thicken in these areas.
The rash typically covers the cheeks, nose, and forehead, but it can involve other areas of the face. These bumps may appear for weeks to months before disappearing and appearing again at a later time.
Although rosacea can affect anyone, it’s most common in middle-aged women who have fair skin. There’s no cure for rosacea, so treatments focus on management techniques. This includes wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen and moisturizing frequently.
If you think you’re experiencing rosacea, consult your doctor. They can make a diagnosis and prescribe medication to help reduce redness.
Prescription medications include:
- topical medications, like:
- brimonidine (Mirvaso)
- azelaic-acid (Azelex)
- metronidazole (Metrogel)
- oral antibiotics, like:
- isotretinoin (Claravis, Accutane)
The exact cause of contact dermatitis varies from person to person, though it develops after coming into contact with something that triggers an allergic reaction on your skin.
Common causes include:
Although it’s helpful to identify the exact cause of your contact dermatitis, there are steps you can take to treat this general rash.
- applying anti-itch cream or calamine lotion
- taking OTC anti-itch medication, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- soaking in a cool oatmeal bath
- avoiding scratching
- using mild soaps without dyes or perfumes
If your symptoms persist after one to two weeks, consult your doctor. They can make a diagnosis, if needed, and prescribe prescription-strength medication.
Eczema is a chronic condition that can also make your skin red and itchy. Although it’s most common in children, it can occur at any age.
Eczema generally starts as small, raised bumps. These bumps may leak fluid if scratched. The rash can also form thickened areas of the skin over a larger area, called plaques.
You may also experience red patches around your:
- hands or wrists
- feet or ankles
- upper chest
- face, especially the cheeks
- elbow crease
- knees, generally on the back
You may be able to manage your symptoms by:
- applying an anti-itch cream or calamine lotion
- taking an oral anti-itch medication, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
- moisturizing at least twice daily
- taking an oatmeal bath
- using a humidifier
Consult your doctor if your symptoms persist for more than one to two weeks. They can make a diagnosis and prescribe prescription-strength medication.
If you’re experiencing bumps that are itchy, inflamed, or filled with fluid, you probably have hives. Hives can often be treated at home or go away on their own without treatment.
If the bumps are hard or filled with pus or something other than fluid, they may be a sign of an underlying medical condition. Hives that occur along with peeling of the skin or blisters can be a sign of a serious allergic reaction.
If you develop a rash or hives after taking a medication, you should consult your doctor immediately.
You should also consult your doctor if you have:
- a rash over your whole body
- a fever
- blisters that leak yellow or green fluid
If you suspect your rash is the result of a preexisting condition that you’re currently seeking treatment for, you may benefit from a consultation. Your doctor can confirm your suspicions and take appropriate next steps.
Contact your doctor if you suspect the rash is caused by an allergen. Severe allergic reactions may result in anaphylaxis, which requires immediate medical treatment.
Rashes caused by stress may vary in how they’re treated and how long they last. A stress rash caused by hives will likely disappear with time and mild to moderate treatments.
You may need to see a doctor to treat stress-related skin conditions such as acne, dermatitis, or severe or long-lasting hives. If you have chronic conditions like psoriasis and rosacea, you should work with your doctor to develop an appropriate treatment plan to use in the long term.
If your rash is caused by stress, this may be a sign that you need to reduce some of the stressors in your life.
There are many methods to help ease your mind and relieve stress, including:
- going to therapy
- practicing meditation or yoga
- exercising regularly
- making time for personal hobbies, such as baking, dancing, or kickboxing
Once you find techniques that help you relax and reframe your outlook, you may find that your skin condition improves.
In the meantime, use OTC medications as needed to alleviate any inflammation and irritation. If your symptoms persist or if you think they’re the result of an underlying condition, consult your doctor. They can work with you to determine your next steps.