A lady scratching a rash on her back.

Is my skin rash from stress?

23 Nov 2022 • 1 min read

Our skin is not only the largest organ of our body, but it is also the most exposed. This means that we humans are susceptible to a multitude of different rashes for a multitude of different reasons. In general, our skin does a wonderful job of protecting us. But sometimes, irritants can make it flare up angrily, resulting in various rashes. Some rashes are of unknown origin (for example, if you have sensitive skin but cannot find the exact allergen), or unavoidable (like itchy rashes during pregnancy or the menopause). Others, like those from bites and stings, are short lived. But if are suffering from a long-term or recurrent rash, it could be related to stress. Luckily, if this is the root cause, there are a number things you can try in order to ease it.

What is stress rash?

One of the main types of stress rash is urticaria, which is more commonly known as ‘hives’. This type of rash can be triggered by many different things, including emotional stress1 . Because there are so many different triggers, around 20 percent of people experience hives at some point in their lives2 .

What causes hives (other than stress)?

You might suffer from chronic stress, but it is not a given that it has caused your rash. Other causes of urticaria include:
  • heat
  • pollen/plants
  • food
  • medicines
  • latex
  • dust mites
  • sunlight, exercise or water
  • insect bites and stings
  • chemicals
  • infections
It is important that if you get urticarial or hives after starting a new medication that you report it, as it could be a known side effect3 .

What do hives look like?

An urticaria rash is actually made up of red hives (weals)4 . It could be one large hive, which might spread over a whole section of the body, or multiple small patches5 . There is no set shape for hives: they could appear like tiny spots (pimples) or large blobs. Hives can also appear anywhere on the body. However, hives on face or mouth is especially concerning as it could mean there is swelling in the throat (also known as angioedema), which could lead to breathing problems6 . If this is the case, seek medical help as soon as possible.

Hives symptoms

As well as the rash itself, other hives symptoms include an itching, burning or stinging sensation7 . Ironically, if the symptom are very unpleasant, chronic, or if the rash is highly visible, then it could could also cause emotional stress, as well as have stress as its root cause8 .

Hives and stress

The link between hives and stress is fairly straightforward, once you understand a bit about the body’s stress response. Far from being simply a reaction to modern life, our bodies get stressed as a way of keeping us safe from danger. The stress response sets of a cascade of hormones that help us fight off – or flee from – life threatening situations. The consequences of this include diverting energy to the organs that are most needed9 , changing the blood flow and stimulating the nervous system and immune response10 . It is no wonder that with all that going on, the opportunity for certain bodily functions to go a bit haywire could arise. If we were fleeing a predator, it is unlikely a rash would bother us too much. However, the problem with modern life is that our brains and bodies get stressed out by non-life threatening events, too. So to rule out whether your urticaria is caused by stress or not, it is wise and almost entirely beneficial to work on your stress levels. For ideas on how to do this, check out Try these instant stress busters.

Hives treatment

Other than stress management, there are medicinal options available which we strongly advise you speak to the your doctor or pharmacist about. If you do not think your rash is due to stress, you might like to read our Health Hub articles, What’s causing my itchy skin?, What is contact dermatitis? and What *is* itchy skin? Last Updated: 11th November 2020 Sources: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
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