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Jefferson Health

Home of Sidney Kimmel Medical College

At-Home Remedies to Calm Hives and Itchy Skin

Is stress over coronavirus manifesting on your skin? Here are six ways to feel some relief.

Stress isn’t necessarily the root cause of chronic skin conditions. But since the 1980s, says Jefferson Health dermatologist Dr. Matthew S. Keller, evidence has suggested that it can contribute to temporary hives, rashes and itchy skin in those who don’t normally suffer from them and exacerbate cases in those who do.

“When people are under physical or emotional stress, they tend to take that out on their skin somewhat,” says Dr. Keller, who specializes in the treatment of psoriasis. “They tend to pick and scratch more with anxiety, which can aggravate and spread rashes, hives and itchiness.”

Dr. Keller offers some tips on how to keep stress-related hives and rashes at bay.

Get Your Exercise

Dr. Keller has recently seen, via telehealth, a greater proportion of patients with significant skin flare-ups of psoriasis, eczema, hives and itchiness than is normal for this time of year.

“It’s hard to say scientifically that this is attributable to the coronavirus,” he notes, “but anecdotally, a number of patients’ dermatologic conditions have become a lot worse.  The coronavirus has had an impact on our stress levels and our ability to go out and do things we normally do. People aren’t taking walks, sitting in parks, golfing, or going to the beach as much. Less fresh air, sunshine and exercise have an impact.”

As the weather gets warmer and some outdoor restrictions are eased, more patients will likely exercise more–safely and with masks, clean hands and social distancing. Dr. Keller recommends getting regular exercise to help relieve stress and itchy skin.

Take an Antihistamine   

Epinephrine, or adrenaline, instigates the release of histamine from mast cells and causes itchy skin conditions, among other allergic reactions. Taking an oral antihistamine can help, suggests Dr. Keller. Avoid antihistamine creams, however, as they can cause a contact allergy.

Eat Better, Feel Better

Stress and being stuck in and around the house lead to frequent trips to the refrigerator and pantry–even when we’re not particularly hungry. At the supermarket, we may be buying more sodium-heavy prepared frozen foods for convenience and economy, and more sweets–rationalizing that they help get us through tough times.

“Eating high levels of salt and sugar certainly isn’t as healthy as fresh produce,” says Dr. Keller. “And the excess weight from poor eating and overeating can certainly increase skin inflammation. Eating wisely can help with that, among many things.”

Keep It Cool 

Creating a temporary mentholated or cooling sensation can help to calm the skin. This can be achieved with some ice wrapped in a washcloth or a bag of frozen peas from the freezer.

Over-the-counter topical lotions such as Sarna Sensitive Skin and Curél Itch Defense lotion contain pramoxine, which is a helpful non-steroidal itch relief ingredient. Other skin relief lotions and creams by such brands as Eucerin, Aveeno and Curél may contain menthol, which can also give some temporary relief from itching. These are more effective, advises Dr. Keller, if refrigerated awhile before application.

“Probably 80% of what’s contained in a pump-bottle lotion is water, so it doesn’t really penetrate the skin much–it evaporates. The mentholated effect from refrigerating the lotion first will make it cooler and more helpful in relieving itch.”

Try a “Soak and Smear”

Dr. Keller believes aloe cream offers soothing-but-brief relief: “I always advise patients that if your skin is dry or irritated, you want to apply something in a jar or a tube, not a pump bottle. And if you’re able to use it, an ointment is more effective than a cream because it provides a stronger barrier to keep the moisture in the skin instead of evaporating.”

Some patients may enjoy oft-recommended oatmeal baths. If that feels good, Dr. Keller says, enjoy it, though, again, he warns the benefits will be short-lived: “There definitely is some data that shows oatmeal, whether in baths or in some topical creams, is soothing and helpful, but I’m not sure how helpful.”

For some patients, the best option, suggests Dr. Keller, maybe a “soak and smear.” First, take your shower before bed–that’s when it’s most effective. Pat yourself dry so that your skin remains somewhat damp, then cover all the troublesome areas with ointment. The pajamas closer to your skin may get greasy, but the ointment and dampness will contain the moisture under your skin all night long. Then, in the morning, apply some refrigerated lotion or cream, which won’t damage your work or leisure clothes.

Don’t Over-Wash

When you shower or bathe, keep the water lukewarm. The hotter the water is, the more likely you’ll remove a lot of the natural oils, making your skin dry and itchy instead of relieving it. And don’t shower every night. If you’re someone who stays in your house all day long, you don’t really need to get in the shower every 24 hours, which dries out your skin. Just gently wash your body and give your skin the chance to maintain some moisture.

All solutions are not equally effective for all people. “Try one or two of these suggestions that you’re comfortable with and determine which are right for you,” concludes Dr. Keller. “The right personal choices should help provide your skin with noticeable relief.”

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COVID-19, Healthy You