It’s been a rough week. Your to-do list could probably wrap the Earth seven times. Stress levels are sky-high. And now? Out of nowhere, hives. Terrific! A health concern was just what this week needed.
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You haven’t switched laundry detergents, tried a new shampoo or eaten any exotic foods. So why is the universe punishing you with itchy, burning welts when you’re already maxed out?
Turns out, stress hives are a thing. But why do you get them? And more pressingly, what can you do to soothe your screaming skin?
Here’s the 4-1-1 on stress rashes from family medicine physician Brian Myers, MD.
- Are allergies made worse by stress?
- Participants with recurring allergy symptoms were more likely to be stressed
- Hives (Urticaria)
What causes hives?
Hives are red welts that swell on the surface of the skin — and they can grow to the size of dinner plates. Sometimes, smaller hives merge into huge patches that cover large swaths of the body.
If you’ve never had hives before, you might think their appearance is the worst part. But, surprise! They can itch, burn or hurt, too.
Often, hives are an allergic reaction brought on by certain foods, fabrics or chemicals. But other times, extreme weather, sweat or plain old stress can trigger an outbreak — without warning.
They’re more common in women and often appear for the first time in your 30s, 40s or 50s. If you’ve had allergic hives before, you’re more likely to experience stress hives, Dr. Myers says.
Still, no one is immune. “It can happen to anyone out of the blue,” he says.
Hives treatment basics
If your skin has erupted with red bumps:
- Do some sleuthing: It can be hard to figure out the cause of a hives outbreak, but try looking back over the last few days to rule out exposure to new foods or products.
- Relax (yeah, we know, we know): If stress is the likely culprit, try to dial down the tension. “Avoiding stress is the first recommended treatment — but, of course, that’s hard to do,” Dr. Myers says. “And unfortunately, the itchiness, pain and appearance of hives can increase stress levels even more.” Try de-stressing with a walk outdoors, a book-and-tea break or delegating some of your tasks.
- Try some meds: To target the spots at their source, Dr. Myers recommends antihistamines like cetirizine (Zyrtec®), fexofenadine (Allegra®) or loratadine (Claritin®).
- Just not these meds: Skip the aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medications like ibuprofen, which can be a trigger for hives.
- These tips may help: Avoid hot water, use mild soap and wear loose-fitting clothes until things calm down.
Stress rash woes: What to expect
How long can you expect to stay polka-dotted? Sorry to say it, but this gets worse before it gets better.
It’s totally normal (though unfair) for new hives to bubble up just as the first welts are fading. They will typically subside within a day or two, and you can treat them with over-the-counter antihistamines.
Now brace yourself for this last bit of bad news: Even after they subside, hives may not be through with you yet. Hive breakouts often come and go in waves and can flare up on and off for weeks.
If hives last longer than a few days, a doctor can help you figure out what’s going on.
Hives usually aren’t medical emergencies, though they can feel like a major disruption to your regularly scheduled programming. However, get medical attention post-haste if you have symptoms like fever or swelling of the mouth, tongue or lips, since those are signs of a more serious allergic reaction.
Can you prevent hives?
So is there any good news here? As usual, an ounce of prevention is the way to go: The best way to deal with hives is to try to identify and avoid triggers in the first place. If you are prone to hives (or just want to play it safe), be proactive.
It doesn’t hurt to keep antihistamines on hand, especially if you’re dealing with a stressful situation. Meanwhile, schedule time for self-care in your calendar to keep stress levels in check. And ask for help when you need it.
After all, there’s no downside to stress management, Dr. Myers points out. Your whole body will thank you — inside and out.
Are allergies made worse by stress?
Researchers from Ohio State University in Columbus explore the link between allergies and stress in a new study, published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Allergies happen when a person’s immune system overreacts to a – generally harmless – foreign substance (an “allergen”), launching chemicals such as histamines that provoke allergy symptoms.
Drugs, dust, food, insect venom, mold, animal dander and pollen are the most common allergens, and can worsen some medical conditions, such as sinus problems, eczema and asthma.
Allergies can be treated by a variety of medications, including antihistamines, corticosteroids, decongestants, leukotrine inhibitors, or – in more serious cases – immunotherapy or epinephrine.
Allergies are not caused by stress, but it seems that stress can make allergy symptoms worse.
“Symptoms, such as sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes can cause added stress for allergy sufferers, and may even be the root of stress for some,” says lead author of the new study, Dr. Amber Patterson. “While alleviating stress won’t cure allergies, it may help decrease episodes of intense symptoms.”
Participants with recurring allergy symptoms were more likely to be stressed
To test this, the Ohio State University researchers observed 179 participants over 12 weeks. Within this period, 39% of the participants had more than one flare-up of allergy symptoms. The researchers found that the group with allergy symptoms had higher stress levels.
Fast facts about allergies
- Children sometimes outgrow allergies, especially food allergies.
- Breastfeeding during the first 6 months of a child’s life can help prevent allergies developing.
- Being exposed to certain allergens (such as dust mites or animal dander) in the first year of life can also protect against some allergies.
Although there was no clear association between allergy flares occurring immediately as a result of stress, many of the people with allergy symptoms did report that their allergies flared up within days of an increase to their daily stress levels.
“Stress can cause several negative effects on the body, including causing more symptoms for allergy sufferers,” says Dr. Patterson. “Our study also found those with more frequent allergy flares also have a greater negative mood, which may be leading to these flares.”
The study suggests that allergy sufferers should try and alleviate stress where possible.
They recommend techniques for this, such as meditating and breathing deeply, learning coping mechanisms that do not involve smoking or caffeine (which can make stress worse), making time for fun and relaxation, adopting a healthy lifestyle and asking for help when needed from family or colleagues.
The president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, Dr. James Sublett, also notes that allergists may be able to help:
“Allergy sufferers can also alleviate stress and allergy symptoms by seeing their board-certified allergist. An allergist will help you develop an action plan with ways to avoid allergy triggers and what treatment will be best for your individual needs.”
Recently, Medical News Today reported on another study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology that found cases of food allergy have doubled in black children.
For many busy people of all ages, stress is often thought of as an inescapable part of life. But in many cases, stress can actually make you physically sick.
Besides affecting emotions and behavior, stress symptoms can cause headaches, muscle tension, and stomach issues.
Now, a new study reveals the science behind how stress can aggravate certain cells and cause allergic reactions or even disease.
The study was conducted Adam Moeser, a researcher from Michigan State University, who specializes in stress-induced diseases.
Moeser’s work illustrates how the stress receptor CRF1 interacts with immune cells called mast cells and can control the cells’ defense response to allergens.
For example, when exposed to a severe allergy or high-level stress, histamine can cause a major allergic reaction. Histamine is a chemical substance in the body that helps get rid of irritants and allergens, and stress can amplify the histamine’s normal response.
“Mast cells become highly activated in response to stressful situations the body may be experiencing,” said Moeser. “When this happens, CRF1 tells these cells to release chemical substances that can lead to inflammatory and allergic diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, life-threatening food allergies and autoimmune disorders such as lupus.”
Moeser conducted several lab experiments with mice, studying how the mice were impacted by either allergic or physiological stress.
One group of mice had normal CRF1 receptors on the mast cells, while a second group had the CRF1 receptors removed from their cells.
The CRF1 deficient mice showed decreased levels of disease regardless of the type of stress they were exposed to. Allergic stress exposures resulted in a 54 percent reduction in disease and the physiological stress correlated with a 63 percent decrease in disease.
“While the ‘normal’ mice exposed to stress exhibited high histamine levels and disease, the mice without CRF1 had low histamine levels, less disease and were protected against both types of stress,” said Moeser. “This tells us that CRF1 is critically involved in some diseases initiated by these stressors.”
The research could help create new treatments for stress-induced diseases like asthma and irritable bowel syndrome, and serves as a reminder to monitor stress levels in the interest of your own health.
By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer
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What Are Hives?
Hives are red raised bumps or welts on the skin. Hives (or
) is a common skin reaction to something like an allergen (a substance that causes allergies).
The spots can appear anywhere on the body and can look like tiny little spots, blotches, or large connected bumps.
Individual hives can last anywhere from a few hours to a week (sometimes longer), and new ones might replace those that fade. Hives that stay for 6 weeks or less are called
hives; those that go on longer than 6 weeks are hives.
What Causes Hives?
An allergic reaction can cause hives, as can:
- temperature extremes
- some illnesses
In some cases, a person has hives and angioedema, a condition that causes swelling around the eyes, lips, hands, feet, or throat. Very rarely, hives and angioedema are associated with an allergic reaction that involves the whole body or anaphylactic shock.
The red welts of hives happen when mast cells in the bloodstream release the chemical histamine, which makes tiny blood vessels under the skin leak. The fluid pools within the skin to form spots and large welts. This can happen for a number of reasons. But in many cases the cause is never found.
Most often, hives are associated with an allergic reaction, which can make the skin break out within minutes. Common allergies include:
- foods, especially shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts, milk, and fruit
- medicines (antibiotics) and allergy shots
- pets and other animals
- insect bites and stings
Sometimes a breakout of hives has nothing to do with allergies. Other causes include:
- infections, including viruses
- anxiety or stress
- sun exposure
- exposure to cold, such as cold water or snow
- contact with chemicals
- scratching (dermatographia)
- putting pressure on the skin, such as from sitting too long or carrying a heavy backpack over a shoulder
Hives due to physical causes (such as pressure, cold, or sun exposure) are called physical hives.
It can be hard to figure out what causes chronic urticaria, though it’s sometimes linked to an immune system illness, like lupus. Other times, medicines, food, insects, or an infection can trigger an outbreak. Often, though, doctors don’t know what causes chronic hives.
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Hives?
The hallmark red raised welts are the main sign of hives. The welts can:
- have a pale center
- appear in clusters
- change shape and location in a matter of hours
- be tiny or as big as a dinner plate
- itch, sting, or cause a burning sensation
Someone who also has angioedema might have puffiness, blotchy redness, swelling, or large bumps around the eyes, lips, hands, feet, genitals, or throat. Other symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, or belly pain.
Rarely, a person with hives and angioedema can also get anaphylactic shock. Signs of anaphylactic shock include breathing trouble, a drop in blood pressure, dizziness, or a loss of consciousness (passing out).
How Are Hives Diagnosed?
Most of the time, a doctor can diagnose hives just by looking at the skin. To find the cause, you may be asked questions about your child’s
, recent illnesses, medicines, exposure to allergens, and daily stressors.
If your child has chronic hives, the doctor may ask you to keep a daily record of activities, such as what your child eats and drinks, and where the hives tend to show up on the body. Diagnostic tests — such as blood tests, allergy tests, and tests to rule out conditions that can cause hives, such as thyroid disease or hepatitis — might be done to find the exact cause of the hives.
To check for physical hives, a doctor may put ice on your child’s skin to see how it reacts to cold or place a sandbag or other heavy object on the thighs to see if the pressure will cause hives.
How Are Hives Treated?
In many cases, mild hives won’t need treatment and will go away on their own. If a definite trigger is found, avoiding it is part of the treatment. If the hives feel itchy, the doctor may recommend an antihistamine medicine to block the release of histamine in the bloodstream and prevent breakouts.
For chronic hives, the doctor may suggest a non-sedating (non-drowsy) prescription or over-the-counter antihistamine to be taken every day. Not everyone responds to the same medicines, though, so it’s important to work with the doctor to find the right one for your child.
If a non-drowsy antihistamine doesn’t work, the doctor may suggest a stronger antihistamine, another medicine, or a combination of medicines. In rare cases, a doctor may prescribe a steroid pill or liquid to treat chronic hives. Usually this is done for just a short period (5 days to 2 weeks) to prevent harmful steroid side effects.
In Case of Emergency
Anaphylactic shock and bad attacks of hives or angioedema are rare. But when they happen, they need immediate medical care.
Kids with bad allergies should carry an injectable shot of
. The doctor will teach you and your child how to safely give an injection if your child is at risk for a severe allergic reaction. Reviewed by: Joanne Murren-Boezem, MD Date reviewed: June 2018