Eczema is more than just dry skin. The condition is characterized by inflammation of the skin that causes severe itching. According to one study in the journal Acta Dermato Venereologica, eczema is a chronic condition that tends to relapse and flare. Eczema (which your doctor may refer to as atopic dermatitis) can be affected by many factors, from the weather to the moisturizer you use to your stress levels. Both physical and emotional stress can be major triggers for an itchy, red, painful eczema flare, so managing stress is an important part of treating eczema.
Eczema: A Psychodermatologic Disorder
Eczema is considered a psychodermatologic disorder, which means that it's a physical condition tied to emotional health. When you're stressed out at work or school or overwhelmed by bills or projects at home, your skin can react. For many people, eczema is well-controlled with treatments. But for those whose eczema doesn't respond well to treatments, such as moisturizers and topical corticosteroid ointments, it's time to look at whether stress is triggering or worsening eczema symptoms.
A study published in the Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology examined the impact of maternal stress during pregnancy on a child's likelihood of developing eczema. The researchers found that women who were stressed out during pregnancy gave birth to babies who were at an increased risk of developing eczema before their second birthdays.
The Stress-Scratch Problem
While it's not exactly understood how eczema occurs, experts do know that it results from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. When someone feels stressed, they may start scratching at their skin. That scratching, according to the Academy of Family Physicians, can worsen skin already irritated by eczema. The skin becomes more irritated and itchy, triggering more scratching. The Acta Dermato Venereologica study noted that when stressed, people with eczema begin to feel itchy and can't resist the urge to scratch.
Treating Stress and Eczema
To reduce eczema flare-ups, treat your skin well and keep stress in check. According to the World Allergy Organization, you can tackle eczema in several ways. Learning about eczema and how to manage it is essential for eczema sufferers, so work with your dermatologist or primary care physician to treat your eczema and educate yourself. Keep skin moisturized by frequently applying rich moisturizing creams, and use topical steroid creams as needed to reduce inflammation. If your doctor suggests it, oral antihistamines, ultraviolet therapy, wet dressings, antifungal creams and antibiotics may also be effective in very serious cases. To soothe stress, the AFP recommends relaxation and stress management techniques, as well as exercise. For serious stress and anxiety, psychotherapy and even anti-anxiety medications may help.
- American Family Physician: Psychodermatology: The Mind and Skin Connection
- Acta Dermato Venereologica :Psychoneuroimmunology of Psychological Stress and Atopic Dermatitis: Pathophysiologic and Therapeutic Updates
- Journal of Investigational Allergology & Clinical Immunology: Stress-related maternal factors during pregnancy in relation to childhood eczema: results from the LISA Study
- World Allergy Organization: Allergic Diseases Resource Center