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Blushing Content Supplied by NHS Choices
Introduction

Blushing is the involuntary reddening of the face, usually triggered by emotions such as embarrassment or stress.

Other areas of the body - such as the neck, ears and upper chest - can also be affected. As well as causing redness, blushing can sometimes make the affected area feel hot.

What causes blushing

"Normal" blushing occurs when a strong emotional trigger stimulates the nervous system, resulting in the widening of the blood vessels in the face.

This increases the flow of blood into the blood vessels just underneath the skin, causing your face to turn red.

Abnormal (severe or frequent) blushing can have both psychological and physical causes, including:

Blushing can also be triggered by drinking alcohol or hot drinks, eating hot or spicy food, strenuous exercise and sudden changes in temperature.

Read more about the causes of blushing.

When to seek medical advice

Most people blush from time to time, and it isn't usually a cause for concern. But frequent and severe blushing can have a significant psychological impact, leading people to avoid certain situations and interacting with other people.

You should consider speaking to your GP if you blush frequently and it's affecting your quality of life.

Available treatments

If abnormal blushing is affecting your quality of life, you may benefit from treatment. The specific treatment offered will depend on the underlying cause of your blushing.

If the underlying cause is thought to be psychological, such as an irrational fear (phobia) or anxiety disorder, a talking treatment called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can often be effective.

Medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can also help relieve any associated feelings of anxiety and worry.

If the underlying cause is physical, such as the menopause or rosacea, you may be advised to avoid common triggers such as stress, alcohol and spicy foods. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can also help women with menopausal hot flushes.

A surgical procedure called endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy (ETS) may be considered if your blushing is particularly severe and other treatments haven't been effective. But this type of surgery carries a risk of long-term problems such as excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis).

Read more about treatments for blushing.

Causes of blushing

Blushing is caused by the sympathetic nervous system - the network of nerves responsible for triggering your 'fight or flight' reflex.

The sympathetic nervous system is a series of involuntary physical changes to your body when faced with a stressful or dangerous situation.

A sudden and strong emotion - such as embarrassment or stress - causes your sympathetic nervous system to widen the blood vessels in your face. This increases the blood flow to your skin, producing the redness associated with blushing.

In addition to emotional triggers, other causes of blushing can include:

  • alcohol 
  • hot or spicy foods
  • hot drinks
  • a high temperature (fever)
  • sudden hot or cold temperatures
  • strenuous exercise
  • certain medical conditions or medication (see below)

Medical conditions

There are a number of medical conditions that can cause a person to blush frequently, including both psychological and physical problems.

A common cause of excessive and frequent blushing is having an irrational fear (phobia) of blushing, known as erythrophobia. People with erythrophobia often worry that they'll blush when interacting with others, and that other people will mock them because of this.

Unfortunately, this can trigger a vicious cycle. They become so worried about being the centre of attention in social gatherings that when it happens, they suddenly become very embarrassed and start blushing, which reinforces their phobia.

Erythrophobia is often associated with other phobias and mood disorders, such as social phobia and general anxiety disorder (GAD).

Blushing can also sometimes be associated with other medical conditions, including:

  • rosacea - a common but poorly understood long-term skin condition that mainly affects the face
  • the menopause - where a woman stops having monthly periods, usually between 45 and 55 years of age
  • mastocytosis - a rare condition caused by excessive amounts of histamine and other chemicals being released into the blood
  • carcinoid syndrome - a rare type of cancer known as a carcinoid tumour which affects the body's ability to produce certain hormones

Although it isn't a direct cause of blushing, excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis) is often associated with the condition.

Medication

Certain types of medication can also cause blushing. These include:

  • tamoxifen - often used to treat breast cancer
  • calcium-channel blockers - used to treat high blood pressure and angina 
  • calcitonin - sometimes used to treat bone disorders such as osteoporosis
  • glyceryl trinitrate and isosorbide dinitrate sometimes used to treat angina
  • buserelin, triptorelin, goserelin and leuprorelin - sometimes used to treat prostate cancer

Speak to your GP if you're taking a medication that causes blushing and it's making you feel worried, stressed or self-conscious. They may be able to recommend an alternative medication.


Treating blushing

Blushing only needs to be treated if it's affecting your quality of life or if it's caused by an underlying condition.

The types of treatment recommended will depend on the cause.

Psychological conditions

Your GP may suggest that you try a psychological treatment if your blushing is caused by an irrational fear of blushing (erythrophobia), social phobia or generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a widely used treatment for these conditions. This is a type of therapy based on the idea that unhelpful and unrealistic thinking leads to negative behaviour.

CBT aims to break this cycle and find new ways of thinking that can help you behave in a more positive way.

For example, many people with a fear of blushing think others will make fun of them if they blush. As part of treatment, the therapist could suggest that this fear is based on an unrealistic thought. Most people are generally supportive and don't take pleasure in the embarrassment of others.

So a more realistic thought might be: "I may come across as a person who is shy, but other people will usually be happy to accept this and often will make extra effort to engage with me".

A course of CBT on the NHS usually consists of around six weekly sessions, with each session lasting an hour.

Medications, such as a type of antidepressant called a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI), can also be used to reduce feelings of fear and anxiety.

Read more about treating phobias and treating generalised anxiety disorder.

Rosacea

If blushing is the result of rosacea, avoiding potential triggers such as stress, prolonged exposure to sunlight and spicy foods may help.

Blushing can also be camouflaged using a green colour-corrective moisturiser. This type of moisturiser is also useful for covering up broken veins. Some colour-corrective moisturisers can be used under a foundation. Others can be particularly useful for men with blushing problems. Hypo-allergenic brands for sensitive skin are also available.

Few medications have been shown to be effective in reducing blushing caused by rosacea, although laser and intense pulsed light (IPL) treatments can sometimes help by shrinking the blood vessels in your face.

Read more about treating rosacea.

Menopause

Many women experience hot flushes and blushing at the time of the menopause. In such cases, it can help to:

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or a medication called clonidine can also often help reduce hot flushes caused by the menopause. Certain antidepressants - such as venlafaxine and fluoxetine - may be useful too, although these medications are unlicensed for this use.

"Unlicensed" means the medication hasn't undergone clinical trials to see whether it's a safe and effective treatment for your condition. However, doctors sometimes consider using an unlicensed medication if they think it's likely to be effective and the benefits outweigh any associated risks.

Read more about unlicensed medicines and treatments for the menopause.

Surgery

In the most severe cases of facial blushing, where other treatments haven't helped, a type of surgery called endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy (ETS) may be considered.

This is a surgical procedure where the nerves that cause the facial blood vessels to dilate (widen) are cut. The operation is carried out under a general anaesthetic, which means you'll be unconscious during the procedure and won't feel any pain while it's carried out.

At the start of the procedure, small incisions will be made beneath one armpit, and a thin, flexible tube with a camera on the end (endoscope) will be inserted through an incision.

The surgeon will be able to locate the nerve that controls the blood vessels in one side of your face. Special surgical instruments can then be inserted through another incision and used to cut the nerve.

When this is complete, the surgeon will repeat the process on the other side of your body.

Although most people are satisfied with the results of ETS, the procedure doesn't always work and some people experience short- or long-term complications afterwards.

Some of the main risks of ETS include:

  • excessive (compensatory) sweating as the cut nerves also control sweating in some areas of the body, the procedure can cause other areas of your body to sweat more
  • Horner's syndrome - where nerve damage causes the upper eyelid on one side of the body to droop
  • pneumothorax - where air gets into the chest cavity and needs to be drained by inserting a temporary tube

Due to problems such as these, particularly excessive sweating, some people regret having ETS. If you're considering this type of surgery, make sure you discuss the possible risks and benefits with your doctor or surgeon beforehand.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has more information about endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy for primary facial blushing.


 
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