Can Stress Cause Eczema?

It’s no secret that stress can have a major impact on our health, including our physical and mental well-being. This can result in anything from headaches, anxiety, mood swings, and depression to heart disease and stroke. But what about eczema? Can stress cause eczema?

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While there’s no definitive answer to this, some research suggests that stress may trigger eczema flare-ups and worsen an existing condition.

In this article, we will explore more about the connection between stress and eczema, including management strategies and tips to lower stress and prevent future eczema flares.

Eczema hands on white background

What is Eczema?

Eczema is a condition that causes the skin to become dry, itchy, rough, cracked, and inflamed. Most people call it atopic dermatitis, but this is just one type of eczema. The condition can affect different people, including infants, children, and adults.

While atopic dermatitis is not contagious and cannot be passed from person to person through contact, it may seem common in certain families. Research shows that four out of five children with eczema (atopic dermatitis) have a family member with the condition. 

All the above supports ongoing research to show that eczema can be caused by a combination of genetics and environmental aspects.

People with atopic dermatitis are also at risk of developing hay fever, food allergies, and asthma.

Types of Eczema

As mentioned above, many types of eczema exist, but atopic dermatitis is the most popular. Here are the other types you should know about.

  • Atopic Dermatitis: This is the most common type of eczema and causes inflammation, itchy skin, and dryness. Though typical in small children, people at other life stages can also experience it. Most dermatologists refer to it as the Triad, which means three. If you suffer from atopic dermatitis, you will likely suffer from asthma and hay fever.
  • Seborrheic Dermatitis: This results in scaly and oily patches that form dandruff-like flakes, especially on the scalp. They can also occur on other oily areas of the body, including the face, upper chest, and back.
  • Neurodermatitis: The condition is similar to atopic dermatitis and often develops in people with other types of eczema and psoriasis. While the main cause is unknown, doctors suggest that stress could be a major cause.
  • Dyshidrotic Eczema: For this condition, one develops small hand and foot blisters. These blisters will itch and can cause the skin to crack and flake. You will often see it in women more than in men.
  • Contact dermatitis: This type of eczema is triggered by contact with an allergen or irritant. An allergen can be something like latex gloves or perfumes, etc., while an irritant can be something like bleach, battery acid, detergents, pepper spray, etc.
  • Nummular eczema: Also known as discoid eczema, nummular dermatitis is a chronic but treatable condition that causes scattered coin-shaped lesions that are often itchy and sometimes oozing.
  • Stasis dermatitis: This type of eczema occurs when there’s a poor blood supply to the lower limbs, causing swelling, itching, and ulcerations on the legs.
  • Hand eczema: This type of eczema appears on the hands. It can present with redness, cracking, flaking, blistering, and itching on fingers or palms.

Eczema Symptoms

Eczema symptoms may vary depending on a person’s age, the severity of the condition, and one’s individual makeup. 

If you have this condition, you may often have good days when the symptoms clear up and terrible ones when they worsen. Let’s look at the symptoms you should be on the lookout for.

Typical Symptoms of Eczema

  • Dry skin
  • Skin rash
  • Itchy skin
  • Leathery skin patches
  • Bumpy skin
  • Swelling and inflammation
  • Scaly and crusty skin

Eczema Symptoms in Infants and Children

These are common symptoms for infants and kids of up to 7 years.

  • Skin rashes on cheeks, scalp, neck, wrists, ankles, and behind elbows and knees
  • Bubbling up rashes that may leak fluids
  • Rashes cause extreme itchiness and discomfort, hence hindering quality sleep (for under 2 years old kids)
  • Thickening of the skin
  • Change of color in rashes (they become darker or lighter)

Symptoms for Eczema in Adults

How eczema appears on your skin depends on its severity and how much you scratch the affected areas. Scratching will not only irritate the skin but also increase inflammation.

  • More scaly rashes (than in children) covering huge areas
  • Rashes on the elbow, neck, and knee creases
  • Extreme itchiness and dry skin
  • Other skin infections

Can Stress Cause Eczema?

Now that you know a few things about eczema, can stress cause the condition? While stress does not necessarily cause eczema, it is a common flare-up trigger.

Understanding the Link Between Stress and Eczema

Stress refers to your body’s reaction to pressure, threatening conditions, or situations that you cannot manage or control. 

It affects the whole body, from the mind to the skin and vital organs. But how does it really fuel up eczema?

When stressed, the nervous system releases stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These two regulate stress and help you cope well. However, if too much, cortisol increases inflammation throughout the body while suppressing the immune system, both of which can easily trigger eczema symptoms.

Additionally, stress affects the balance of good gut bacteria, which ultimately causes inflammation. And since the skin mirrors most things happening internally, the internal inflammation often shows as skin issues such as acne and psoriasis. Research shows that people with these skin conditions are more susceptible to flare-ups when stressed.

Symptoms of Stress-Related Eczema

Most people recognize eczema by its itchy patches on the skin. While this could be the easiest sign to identify the disease, you could also be wrong, as other diseases may manifest similar symptoms. These may include conditions like scabies, psoriasis, and mycosis.

To avoid confusion, it is important that you visit your doctor for an assessment and tests such as patch testing to confirm your diagnosis. 

During the patch test, the doctor will apply a small amount of allergen to your skin and keep it attached to the skin with a non-allergic tape. After two days, the patches are removed, and the skin is assessed for any reaction.

The common ones you’re likely to experience include:

  • Dry skin
  • Skin irritation
  • Itchiness
  • Swelling and Inflammation
  • Skin bumps
  • Discolored rashes
  • Scaly skin

When stressed, someone with eczema will still experience these symptoms but more frequently, and you can easily tell stress is the main trigger if there’s no other trigger or irritant.

How to Reduce Stress Levels and Treat Eczema

Dealing with chronic stress is already bad enough. It is even worse when the stress flares up with eczema symptoms.

Lucky for you, there are ways to get around stress and prevent eczema from getting worse. Since you are dealing with a two-in-one condition, the approach will address stress and eczema. Read on!

Avoid Scratching

This may sound obvious, but people suffering from eczema and other skin conditions attest to how difficult not scratching is. 

With the skin barrier broken, the nerve fibers are also altered, which increases sensory fibers. This means that even a light touch will make you feel so itchy, and before you even figure it out, you are scratching.

To minimize scratching, you need to wear cotton gloves, wet wraps, or plastic wrap on your hands. Keep the temperatures cool, and use light and natural fibers for your bedding. It makes your skin feel comfortable and reduces the chances of scratching.

Your doctor may also recommend an anti-itch cream or lotion with calamine. The cream often contains hydrocortisone, which temporarily relieves and reduces itchiness.

Exercise Regularly

Physical exercise is your best shot at improving your overall health and well-being. Participating in these activities will reduce stress hormones and stimulate the production of endorphins, which are feel-good chemicals in the brain that help alleviate pain and relieve stress.

While it is a temporary high feeling, regular activity will ultimately reduce the negative effects of stress and boost your body systems’ functionality, including skin repair.

Depending on your eczema extent, you may be limited to some form of physical activity, such as swimming. This is because chlorine in swimming pools can trigger symptoms.

You may also want to avoid intense activities like High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), as this can cause too much sweating, aggravating the skin and making it itchy.

According to the National Eczema Association, wearing loose-fitting cotton clothing, wiping off your sweat with a towel during exercise, and resting more often between sessions can help you achieve exercise benefits for eczema.

Get Enough Sleep

Sleep is therapy on its own. When you do not get enough sleep, your body sends distress signals. This causes a release of cortisol, the stress hormone that keeps the body in a fight or flight mode, hence stressing you even more.

Getting enough sleep reduces the production of cortisol hormone and brings back balance to your body systems. When dealing with stress, it’s good to aim for 7-9 hours of sleep, but it’s not just about the length but also the quality of your sleep.

A few things to enhance better sleep include:

  • Developing a healthy sleep pattern. Start by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day for a week to develop a healthy sleep pattern. 
  • Paying attention to what you eat or drink before bed. Avoid going to sleep while hungry or on a full stomach.
  • Keep your room dark, cool, and quiet to help cultivate a restful environment.
  • Turn off the screens early enough before bed
  • If you take naps during the day, keep them short.
  • Take a hot shower before bed, apply your anti-itch cream, and use soft bedding, so your skin gets a soft landing.
  • All this ensures that your mind and skin will be relaxed throughout the night.

Embrace a Good Skin Care Routine

Eczema hugely affects the skin, and while most people only think of skincare when the skin flares up, it should be routine. To calm your itchy skin, you must adopt and consistently follow a personalized skincare routine.

Research shows that the most effective routine needs to start with a gentle cleanser (for oily skin) and water for normal and dry skin. After this, you can use your eczema treatment products and finish with daily sunscreen.

Since the routine highly depends on the severity of your condition, you must speak to your dermatologist. They will recommend safe products and advise on how far you should go when it comes to skincare.

Eat a healthy diet

Anti-inflammatory diets are the best for fighting eczema. This means you avoid food that triggers inflammation while eating more of those that fight inflammation.

Common inflammatory foods to avoid include

  • Dairy and dairy products
  • Refined grains like white bread, breakfast cereals, pasta, white rice
  • Added sugar and high fructose corn syrup
  • Fried foods
  • Alcohol
  • Processed meats
  • Processed carbohydrates
  • Soda

Anti-inflammatory foods that fight eczema

Foods rich in flavonoids: Flavonoids are antioxidant compounds rich in anti-inflammatory properties. Best sources include apples, cherries, spinach, kale, and blueberries.

Potassium-rich foods: A good example includes bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes, and white beans. Potassium is anti-inflammatory, and eating foods rich in it can improve eczema symptoms.

Probiotic-rich foods: These are high in probiotics, the good bacteria in your gut. Probiotics can help fight inflammation and boost immunity, among others. Best food sources include yorgut, miso, tempeh, and sauerkraut. You can also take an over-the-counter probiotic supplement.

Foods rich in vitamin C: Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that can prevent allergic responses in the body. Best food sources include oranges, cauliflower, pineapple, and mangoes.

Other things you can do to reduce stress levels and improve eczema include identifying your stressors, finding ways to avoid or minimize them, and seeking professional help when necessary.

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  3. What is Chronic Stress?

  4. Stress Eating Disorder: What Is It and How Can You Avoid It?

Final Thoughts

If you’re dealing with eczema flare-ups, it’s good to address any underlying emotional or physical issues that could be causing additional stress.

While stress alone cannot cause eczema, it has been shown to trigger or worsen symptoms.

Developing healthy coping strategies like exercising, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and avoiding or effectively managing stress triggers can help reduce overall stress and reduce the occurrence of flare-ups.

Also, if you feel things are out of control and would benefit from a professional, don’t hesitate to seek help.

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