That stress can knock your immune system off the top of its game isn't shocking, but you may surprised to learn that undergoing emotional and mental stress can actually create physical reactions, including allergic reactions. Sometimes these reactions become severe, especially if they last more than one day. More information is coming to light about these reactions, and avoiding or properly managing stress well may be even more important to your overall health that previously thought.
Research into why stress can set off an allergic response is ongoing, but mast cells might be at least one culprit. In an allergy, mast cells are the ones that, after immunoglobulin E antibodies join up with them, launch defensive substances such as histamines in response to the proteins of food, pollen or other allergens. This histamine attack is what leads to an allergic reaction. A 2004 review in the “Journal of Neuroimmunology” notes that when you become stressed, immunoglobulins -- not the IgE antibodies you find in regular allergic reactions, but different ones -- cause the mast cells to release histamines and other substances that create a reaction.
Researchers at the Ohio State University have found that stress can increase the severity of existing allergies. Their study compared reactions to an allergy skin test in control subjects and subjects who were placed in stressful conditions such as having to calculate math problems in their head in front of a panel. Not only were the skin reactions bigger in subjects who were under stress, but the next day, the reactions became more severe. This kind of response is called a late-phase reaction, and the researchers noted that it can be difficult to treat.
Allergic reactions often involve itchy hives forming on the skin, and these can be especially frustrating because of the wide range of possible causes. The reaction could be a response just to stress itself, as the University of Maryland Medical Center notes, or it could be due to stress worsening eczema, a rash-like condition that is common in people under 25. It's also possible that your stress has merely coincided with finding out you're allergic to a cosmetic that is giving you hives. As futile as it might seem to determine the source of the reactions of your skin, get any skin rashes checked out by your doctor, especially if you have never been diagnosed with eczema. Once you have a diagnosis, you can proceed with an appropriate treatment plan, be it stress reduction only, avoiding a potential allergen or trying out medications or therapies that treat severe eczema.
Secondary Effects on Asthma
In addition to exacerbating existing allergies, stress can exacerbate asthma in several ways. Stress by itself can contribute to an asthma attack, but if it also increases the severity of an allergy and that allergy induces asthma attacks, you experience the ill effects of both problems. National Jewish Health advises having an asthma management plan in effect; talk to your allergist or asthma doctor to devise one that will best handle your everyday stress levels.
- Kids Health: Eczema
- American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: Allergic Skin Conditions: Tips to Remember
- Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: Hives
- Journal of Neuroimmunology: Critical Role of Mast Cells in Inflammatory Diseases and the Effect of Acute Stress; TC Theoharides et al.
- The Ohio State University: Stress, Anxiety Can Make Allergy Attacks Even More Miserable and Last Longer
- National Jewish Health: Asthma: Triggers
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Dermatitis