Dermatographia may sound like a strange, rare disease, but it is actually a fairly common skin disorder. As many as five percent of the population develops dermatographia at some point in their lives. Some people only experience minor, fleeting symptoms, while others experience severe discomfort. It gets its name, which translates to "skin writing," from the bold scratches and welts it causes. Doctors still are not sure of the exact causes, but there are many things they do know about dermatographia.
People with dermatographia develop scratches, hives, or welts when pressure is applied to their skin. The exact kind of pressure required to make the marks varies from person to person but can be anything from a light scratch to pressure from tight clothes. These scratches or welts are typically not painful, although they can be itchy, and they usually go away in about half an hour. However, for people with more severe forms of the condition, the marks can worsen into wounds requiring treatment.
The underlying causes of dermatographia are unknown, but many doctors believe the resulting marks develop when the immune system becomes confused or overactive in response to stimuli, such as frequent exposure to rough surfaces. Heat and exercise can worsen symptoms for some people, although others are more affected by cold. Some cases may be related to persistent dry skin or exposure to common drugs, such as antibiotics.
The most common time dermatographia symptoms appear is when the skin is roughly scratched, although other triggers can cause it as well. Most people do not experience these symptoms every time they come in contact with those triggers, however. The reaction can be unpredictable, although it is often more likely to flare up when the individual is experiencing stress or other illnesses.
There is no definitive test for dermatographia, but the most common one is for a doctor to use a wooden tongue depressor or similar tool to lightly scratch the patient's back. Since dermatographia-related inflammation typically occurs within a few minutes, the doctor simply waits to see if hives or other swelling appears. This, along with the patient's description of past symptoms, is usually enough for an accurate diagnosis.
In most cases, dermatographia does not require treatment. For particularly itchy or irritating marks, oral antihistamine medications should suffice. Some people also use topical treatments, such as oatmeal pastes or aloe vera, to soothe the affected areas. In addition, reducing stress and engaging in relaxing activities such as yoga and meditation may help reduce the frequency of dermatographia flare-ups.
Dermatographia is similar to hives and welts caused by allergies, and sometimes the two can overlap. For example, an allergic reaction to a certain type of laundry soap may only appear when the person is wearing tight clothing. However, the main difference is that dermatographia can usually be triggered by many different materials, most of which do not cause welts when touched in other situations. Some people even trigger their dermatographia when scratching themselves with their own hands. Allergies also often come with other symptoms, such as sneezing, stuffy noses, and anaphylaxis in severe cases, while dermatographia is limited to swelling of the skin.
While there is no foolproof way to prevent dermatographia, some preventative actions can lessen the likelihood of flare-ups. Avoiding regular irritation caused by scratchy clothing and bedding can reduce the likelihood of inflammation, as can generally keeping the skin healthy and hydrated. Hot water can dry out the skin and trigger a reaction, so dermatologists recommend cool or lukewarm baths and shower.
Although there is no way to cure dermatographia, the prognosis is generally good. For most people, it only lasts for a few weeks or months, although it can last for years. Flare-ups tend to be minor, and only slightly itchy and uncomfortable, so most people with dermatographia lead normal lives.
Although anyone can be affected by dermatographia, it primarily affects teens and young adults. People with persistent dry skin or other skin problems may be more prone to it, as well as those with thyroid disorders. Other conditions, such as nerve problems, may make people more likely to develop dermatographia, but this could be because the discomfort caused by their other condition makes them scratch or rub their skin more frequently than most people
Although dermatographia can be unsightly and uncomfortable, it is a mostly harmless condition. It does not typically pose risks to long-term health, and most people with it do not even seek medical treatment. Although it may require some lifestyle changes and occasional use of over-the-counter medications to prevent or treat flare-ups, there is generally no reason to be concerned about more serious symptoms developing.
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