November 24, 2015

Itching, sweating, stress: Temple research links mental health to skin health

Survey of college students find that stress is linked to unpleasant skin conditions

College Temple
Temple University Matt Rourke/AP Photo

Temple University.

College students stressing out about midterm exams have even more reason to be anxious. A new study from Temple University has linked stress levels to a host of serious ailments, including pruritus, hyperhidrosis, or even the dreaded onychophagia.

Before you panic, do note that these are just the scientific terms for itchy skin, sweating and nail-biting.

Researchers at Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine investigated the results of an online survey of 422 undergraduates at the university, who reported both their perceived stress levels and on the state of their skin.

Unsurprisingly, respondents with high stress levels were far more likely to suffer from itchy or scaly skin, hair loss, oily scalp patches, hand rashes or hair loss. Pulling an all-nighter can even lead you to pull your hair out (a condition called “trichotillomania”).

However, researchers found no association between stress levels and zits, face rashes or warts.

Dr. Gil Yosopovitch, Chair of the school’s Department of Dermatology and Director of the Temple Itch Center (who knew they had one?), warned that the study has limitations. Less than 10 percent of the five thousand undergraduates invited to take part in the study responded and were included in the final sample size. Doctors did not get to see the students and examine their skin directly. 

Nevertheless, he says the findings show dermatologists need to take special care when treating college-age patients.

“Our findings highlight the need for health care/dermatology providers to ask these patients about their perceived levels of psychological stress,” he said. “Disease flare or exacerbation while on treatment in the setting of increased stress may not necessarily reflect treatment failure."

Stress is becoming an increasingly serious issue on college campuses, with many counseling centers reporting a rise in serious mental health problems. In the latest American College Health Association survey of 90,000 students, 85.6 percent reported feeling “overwhelmed by all you had to do” within the last year, 56.9 percent “felt overwhelming anxiety” and 34.5 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function."

The research suggests that students who notice skin problems shouldn’t just reach for lotion. They should also step back, take a break from work and ask themselves if it’s possible to reduce the stress in their lives.

Read the full study here.