Impact of acute stress on itch sensation and scratching behaviour in patients with atopic dermatitis and healthy controls

H Mochizuki, M J Lavery, L A Nattkemper, C Albornoz, R Valdes Rodriguez, C Stull, L Weaver, J Hamsher, K M Sanders, Y H Chan, G Yosipovitch
British Journal of Dermatology 2019, 180 (4): 821-827

BACKGROUND: Patients with atopic dermatitis (AD) often report that stress aggravates their itch. However, no study has investigated if and how acute stress influences itch sensation and scratching behaviour in these patients.

OBJECTIVES: We evaluated the impact of acute stress on experimentally induced cowhage itch perception and scratching behaviour in 16 healthy subjects and 15 patients with AD.

METHODS: The Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) was used to induce acute stress. The itch sensation, provoked by applying cowhage to the forearms, and off-site scratching behaviour (not directed at the cowhage application site) were compared before and after performing the TSST or the control condition (watching a video of landscape scenes).

RESULTS: In patients with AD, stress induced by TSST caused a significant reduction of cowhage-evoked itch but significantly increased off-site scratching behaviour. Such changes in itch perception and scratching behaviour were not observed in healthy controls. In addition, a significant positive correlation was noted between stress induced by TSST and clinical severity of eczema.

CONCLUSIONS: We speculate that psychological stress increases spontaneous scratching in patients with AD, which may enhance the vicious cycle of itching and scratching, resulting in aggravation of the skin eczema. These results provide new insights on the mechanism of acute stress-related exacerbation of itch in patients with AD.


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