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Itchy Skin? It Could be Related to Stress

If you’re suffering from chronic, itchy skin, a new study suggests that stress could be part of the problem. Here’s why.

If you suffer from itchy skin problems, you probably already know how annoying and difficult to treat this symptom can be. It seems the more you scratch, the more irritated your skin becomes which further reinforces the scratch and itch cycle. Although here are a multitude of causes for chronic itch, a new study suggests that some itchy skin problems may actually be caused by stress.

In a study published in the American Journal of Pathology in November of 2008, it was demonstrated that stress could bring on the type of skin inflammatory response that produces chronic itch. Although this study was carried out in mice, it seems likely that this same type of inflammatory reaction might also be precipitated by stress in humans, although further studies will be needed to confirm this.

How might stress cause itchy skin problems? It appears that stress brings about changes in the immune cells found in the skin which cause them to become activated, setting up a hyperactive immune response that results in chronic itch. Although these immune cells serve an important function by protecting the skin from invading pathogens such as bacteria and yeast, when the immune response becomes too strong the result can be development of skin conditions which result in irritation, inflammation, and itching. An example of a skin condition associated with an overactive immune response is psoriasis which has long been though to be associated with stress.

By understanding the mechanism by which stress causes skin conditions associated with chronic itch, the researchers hope to be able to direct therapy towards reducing the hyperactive response elicited by the immune cells in the skin in response to stress. Interestingly, topical steroids are often used to treat various skin conditions associated with itch which exerts their effects by blunting the skin’s immune response, lending further support to the role of the immune system in triggering chronic itch.

While it’s impossible to avoid stress entirely, it’s possible that learning new ways to control stress might have some effect on skin conditions associated with chronic itch, particularly meditation, hypnosis, relaxation therapy, and even yoga. This would constitute an entirely different approach to keeping itchy skin problems under control.

Although it’s premature to consider using these alternative anti-stress therapies to relieve chronic itch, if you’ve tried conventional approaches for treating chronic, itchy skin to no avail, these therapies might be worth a try.

Keep in mind that chronic itch can be a sign of a more serious illness such as diabetes, liver or kidney disease, autoimmune diseases, allergies, and even certain types of cancer. It’s important to be evaluated by a doctor if you experience the onset of chronic, itchy skin. Once you’ve ruled out these more serious conditions, your doctor may suggest certain medications such as topical steroids which could be used in conjunction with techniques to reduce stress.

This study certainly adds a new dimension to the way you might approach the symptom of chronic itch. A little relaxation and peace of mind may be just what you need for your skin as well as for your mind.

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  1. An interesting article Kristie. I always have a itchy back especially when I am stressed and the itch is always just out of reach. It would be good to be able to control it.

  2. Hello to all readers. 6-7 years ago i had stress after which i suffer much. The first years it was terrible. I didnt want to live. Gradually it has gone away. The last 3 years i have it on my fingers and toes. all these years i have been taking Atarax, in Greece it has that name. But i still suffer. Could anybody share his experience concerning the treatment? My e-mail is julia.p.2008@hotmail.com

  3. I’m currently a 29 year old psychology student suffering from sometimes severe and chronic itching. I’ve had these symptoms while living with both city water and well water (sometimes a warm shower can trigger symptoms). Although I have had a few fungal attacks, I do not believe it to be the case.

    I definitely do not have dry skin and I’m almost certain this condition is brought on by high levels of stress, usually school related. Symptoms can last for about an hour or two and come and go at random. The sub conscience is a powerful thing! I won’t be actively thinking about a stress trigger, yet the brain is already 1 step ahead.

    I can confidently testify the level of discomfort can only be described as wanting to jump out of your own skin! (I have at times literally cried out and nearly jolted into the air, it could be described as some sort of medieval torture) From the very top of my head all the way to my ankles, excessive itching! I’ve had this so severe at times I l grabbed a butter knife to reach places on my back that I can’t reach with my fingers. Sometimes the areas scratched produce fleshed colored hive like bumps.

    Occasionally I have tried Benedryl, which can help, but also leaves me feeling tired and groggy. My doctor prescribed Zoloft or whatever the generic brand, unfortunately after a few weeks of being groggy and sleeping excessively, sometimes 14 hours; I gave it the axe.

    The only real cure is to live a reduced stress lifestyle, after all, high levels of stress weaken the immune system.

    I would love to see more research conducted in this area!

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