Acute Stress Enhances While Chronic Stress Suppresses Skin Immunity. The Role of Stress Hormones and Leukocyte Trafficking

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2000;917:876-93. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2000.tb05454.x.


Delayed-type hypersensitivity (DTH) reactions are antigen-specific, cell-mediated immune responses that, depending on the antigen, mediate beneficial (resistance to viruses, bacteria, fungi) or harmful (allergic dermatitis, autoimmunity) aspects of immunity. Contrary to the widely held notion that stress is immunosuppressive, we have shown that under certain conditions, stress can enhance immune function. DTH reactions can be studied in rats or mice by challenging the pinnae of previously sensitized animals with antigen. Studies have shown that acute stress administered immediately before antigen exposure significantly enhances skin DTH. In contrast, chronic stress significantly suppresses skin DTH. Stress-induced changes in leukocyte distribution may contribute to these bidirectional effects of stress, since acute stress induces a significant mobilization of leukocytes from the blood to the skin, whereas chronic stress suppresses leukocyte mobilization. In order to identify the hormonal mediators of the observed effects of stress, we first showed that adrenalectomy (ADX) eliminates the stress-induced enhancement of DTH. Acute administration (to ADX animals) of low doses of corticosterone and/or epinephrine significantly enhances skin DTH. In contrast, acute administration of high doses of corticosterone, low doses of dexamethasone, or chronic administration of moderate doses of corticosterone, suppress skin DTH. Thus, the timing and duration of stress may significantly affect the nature (enhancing versus suppressive) of the effects of stress on skin immune function. These results suggest that during acute stress, stress hormones may help enhance immune function by informing the immune system about impending challenges (e.g., wounding or infection) that may be imposed by a stressor (e.g., an aggressor). Thus, during acute stress, the brain may send a warning signal to the immune system, just as it does to other fight/flight systems in the body.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Animals
  • Chronic Disease
  • Heat-Shock Proteins / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Hypersensitivity, Delayed / immunology
  • Immunity
  • Immunosuppression
  • Leukocytes / immunology*
  • Skin / immunology*
  • Stress, Physiological / immunology*


  • Heat-Shock Proteins