Dermatographism

Dermatographism is a skin disorder characterized by the skin becoming raised and inflamed (hive-like) when stroked or rubbed with a dull object. The name dermatographism derives from the Greek language and translates literally as “skin writing” (see picture below). It is believed to be caused by mast cells, a type of white blood cell often involved in allergic reactions, releasing histamine and other inflammatory substances into the surrounding skin. This causes the skin to become red, raised and itchy.

The underlying cause of dermatographism is not known, but it is not considered to be life threatening or contagious. It is often confused with an allergic reaction to the object causing a scratch, when in fact it is simply the act of being scratched that causes the skin to change appearance.

This condition may last for days, weeks, months or years. Dermatographism often begins in association with some type of infection, such as, an upper respiratory tract infection, and can occur at any age. There appears to be no known racial variance in prevalence. Dermatographism occurs in approximately 5% of the population.

Symptoms

Oftentimes, an individual may present with symptoms of generalized itchiness or the sensation of burning. Irritation at one site of the body can result in mast cells in other parts of the body releasing histamine although they have not been directly stimulated. Dermatographism is a condition limited to the skin. If you experience other symptoms that are concerning, such as, difficulty breathing, seek immediate medical attention. Symptoms can be induced by tight or abrasive clothing, watches, glasses, heat, cold, or anything that causes stress to the skin or the patient. In many cases it is merely a minor annoyance, but in some rare cases symptoms are severe enough to impact a patient's life.

Diagnosis

Dermatographism is often diagnosed after a physician rubs or strokes the skin with a dull object and the characteristic red, raised, itchy rash appears.

Treatment

Normally, the swelling and irritation reduces itself with no treatment within 20-30 minutes, though in extreme cases, itchy red wheals may last anywhere from a few hours to days. If treatment is necessary, antihistamines are usually effective.

How We Can Help

An allergist can help make the diagnosis of dermatographism by taking a careful medical history and performing a physical examination to rule out other disorders that may present similarly.

 
     
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