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General Medical Questions
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Question : In the past year, I have been under a lot of stress, and I have been breaking out in hives and skin rashes. Is there a link between stress and hives?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is Senior Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller is in clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he has been on staff for more than 25 years.

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August 08, 2012
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A:

Doctors have long noted that stress can make hives and other rashes erupt. These are allergic reactions. Stress probably boosts allergy, but we don’t know exactly how.

One guess is that nerve cells may produce a triggering substance. We know the chemical histamine is involved. That’s why antihistamines are given to treat hives. No one knows how much stress is necessary. And we don’t know why one person is more vulnerable than another.

Hives — also called wheals — are raised, itchy swellings of the skin. The medical term is urticaria. The itching is uncomfortable. And the redness can be unsightly. Hives usually last less than 24 hours, but attacks can last longer. That’s because hives act like a tag team: new ones pop up as older ones fade.

With so many unanswered questions, it’s best to be practical.

To treat stress, you can try:

  • Anti-anxiety drugs
  • Psychotherapy
  • Stress management
  • Relaxation techniques.

This may help lessen skin reactions.

But you might also look for other reasons why it might be happening in the first place. Here are some possible causes:

  • An allergic reaction to a drug, herb or supplement
  • Allergy to an animal
  • Insect bites
  • An unusual sensitivity to heat, cold, sunlight, skin pressure or exercise
  • Chemical contacts
  • Cosmetics
  • Infections

The full list of causes is much longer. So see your doctor for a medical evaluation.

Your doctor still may not be able to find the cause. But it helps to rule out obvious triggers. And your doctor will be able to offer a variety of treatments for this itchy, uncomfortable problem.

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