Already have an account?
Get back to the

Stress Hives Can Be Itchy and Embarrassing — Here’s How to Speed Relief and Block Flare-Ups

A visualization trick astronauts use to keep calm on space flights thwarts the tension-triggered rash

If you notice red, itchy welts suddenly popping up on your skin, you may start to panic. Are you having an allergic reaction? Did you catch something contagious? But your mystery rash may have a much simpler explanation. Urticaria, more commonly known as hives, can be a natural response to stress. We asked experts to break down exactly what causes stress hives, how long they last and how can you get rid of them fast.

What are stress hives?

Stress hives are a relatively common type of rash caused by stress or anxiety. It’s no secret that stress can wreak havoc on your health. Stress causes inflammation that can affect your immune system, disrupt your sleep and contribute to everything from high blood pressure to weight gain (also known as “stress belly”). And tension can take a particularly big toll on your skin. It can cause breakouts, contribute to hair loss, impair the skin barrier and trigger flare-ups of conditions like eczema, rosacea and alopecia.

Pesky stress hives are just one more way that excess tension can mess with your skin. “Stress hives are caused by your body’s reaction to extreme levels of stress or anxiety,” says Anna Chacon, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Miami Derm. “When you’re under stress, your body releases histamine, a substance that can prompt a skin reaction, including hives.”

Histamines play a key role in your body’s immune system and inflammatory response. When your seasonal allergies kick in with a vengeance, or a wound itches like crazy while it’s healing, histamines are to blame. Stress increases the amount of histamines in your bloodstream, causing a response similar to an allergic reaction. (See how tea for allergies can tamp down your body’s histamine response.)

These stress hives typically appear on your face, neck, chest or arms. They may be small, or they may sometimes connect to form bigger welts that spread across areas of your skin.

Red, raised stress hives on a person's neck

Are hives contagious?

While some itchy rashes like poison ivy are known for how easily they can spread to others, there’s good news to report when it comes to stress hives. They’re not contagious. “They are a personal, physiological response to stress and cannot be transferred to others,” Dr. Chacon explains. (Whew — one less thing to be stressed about.)

How long do hives last?

Stress hives can be uncomfortable, but in most cases, they’re not a major cause for concern. The hives will usually clear up on their own within a day or two. For some people, though, stress hives may continue to flare up off and on over time. If you’re still seeing hives after six weeks, you may be dealing with chronic urticaria.  

If your hives haven’t fully subsided after a week, or they’re interfering with your day-to-day life, let your doctor know. “Stress hives should be addressed if they cause severe personal or occupational disability, and especially if they persist for longer than 6 weeks,” says Quynh-Giao Sartor, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Westlake Dermatology in Houston, TX. Your doctor may want to rule out other possible causes for your hives, such as an allergic reaction or contact dermatitis from a new skincare product.

Of course, if you experience any signs of a severe allergic reaction, throw that timetable out the window and head to the ER. “If your hives are accompanied by severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing, chest tightness or swelling of the face, lips, tongue or throat, it’s critical to seek immediate medical attention,” Dr. Chacon notes.

A woman scratching her neck while tilting her head to the side
Science Photo Library/Getty

How to get rid of hives

Stress hives will usually go away on their own, but if you want to speed the process along — and who wouldn’t?! — head to the drugstore and pick up an over-the-counter oral antihistamine, Dr. Sartor says. Keep in mind some antihistamines may cause drowsiness, so be sure to read the label carefully and follow any precautions.

If your stress hives are severe or chronic, your doctor may prescribe a stronger medication, such as prednisone or omalizumab, to treat flare-ups.

In the meantime, resist the urge to scratch your hives. Scratching actually triggers your body to release more histamines, which can make the itching even worse. “Applying a cold compress to the affected area can alleviate inflammation and itching,” Dr. Chacon says.

4 ways to prevent stress hives

Dealing with stress hives can be a bit of a catch-22. The best way to get rid of them is by keeping your stress level low, but it’s hard to find your zen when you’ve covered in itchy welts.

Still, while antihistamines and cold compresses can help soothe the itch, it’s “crucial to address the root cause, which is stress,” advises Dr. Chacon. “Prevention of future flare-ups primarily involves effectively managing your stress levels.”

Here are a few ways to lower your stress level right now and outsmart future flare-ups.

1. Spend 15 minutes outside to block stress hives

Permission to ditch your to-dos for a few minutes to pop outside and soak up some sun. “Daily sun exposure for 15 minutes is a natural stress reliever,” Dr. Sartor says. Go for a walk around the block, read a book in a hammock or sit on your patio while you catch up with a friend.

Bonus points if you spend some time in your garden while you’re outdoors. A study in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found that touching plant foliage, like the pretty flowers you’re pruning, triggers a calming response in the brain.

A woman in a purple shirt smiling while in a veggie garden
Heide Benser/Getty

2. Light a lavender candle to block stress hives

Unwinding with a softly flickering lavender candle is many folks go-to stress buster, and for good reason. According to a recent review of studies published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, the smell of lavender noticeably tamps down tension. And in even better news, it can start to usher in calm within just a few minutes. Not a fan of lavender? Bergamot, chamomile, valerian and clary sage are also known for their stress-busting benefits.

Related: The ‘Lullaby’ Lavender Tea Guaranteed to Melt Stress and Deepen Sleep

3. Let out a deep sigh to block stress hives

It may sound strange, but when you’re stressed, heaving a dramatic sigh can help. “Mindfulness and deep breathing exercises have proven effective for many,” Dr. Chacon says. One of the most effective breathing techniques for stress relief is cyclic sighing. This simple exercise can slow your breathing and improve your overall mood, according to researchers at Stanford Medicine. Here’s how to do it:

  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose
  • Pause briefly, then take one last “sip” of air to completely fill your lungs
  • Slowly exhale until your lungs are empty
  • Repeat for five minutes

The best part? Experts say you’ll start feeling calmer in as little as one or two breaths. (Learn more benefits of cyclic sighing.)

A woman in a blue shirt with brown hair closing her eyes while holding her hands to her chest to breathe deeply and block stress hives
Ivan Pantic/Getty

4. Imagine you’re at the beach to block stress hives

Sure, a relaxing trip to a quiet beach would definitely improve your stress levels. But as much as we’d love to, we’d can escape to a tropical paradise whenever tension strikes. Fortunately, you can feel calmer right now just by visualizing a peaceful scene, Dr. Chacon says.

Guided imagery can slow your breathing and heart rate and help you sleep better. And these important physiological changes can make you feel more relaxed. In fact, guided imagery is so effective that it’s been researched as a way to help astronauts stay calm during spaceflight emergency tasks.

Not sure where to get started? Follow this simple guided imagery video from the National Institute of Mental Health.  

For more ways to soothe stress naturally:

Top Doc: Vagus Nerve Exercises Reverse Stress — And Taking *This* Many Breaths a Minute Is the Easiest Fix

Genius Tapping Trick Tames Chronic Stress + More Easy Ways To Reduce Cortisol

Anxious and On-Edge? Doctors Share the Best Supplements to Tame Stress Naturally

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

Use left and right arrow keys to navigate between menu items. Use right arrow key to move into submenus. Use escape to exit the menu. Use up and down arrow keys to explore. Use left arrow key to move back to the parent list.