It’s happened to all of us. You try a new laundry detergent, a dog jumps on your lap, you eat a brownie… with nuts in it; a random trigger and suddenly your skin is hit with an outbreak of urticaria. A condition you’re probably more familiar with as hives. If you shivered in disgust at the memory of a traumatic hives experience, that’s okay. Somewhere around 10-20% of the population are subject to an episode of hives in their lifetime.
What are hives?
For those who have been lucky enough to bypass the horrendous experience of a hive breakout, hives are swollen, pale red bumps, also known as welts or wheals, that abruptly break out on the skin. They cause itching, stinging or burning and may appear anywhere on the body. Typically hives are an allergic reaction, but sometimes the allergen causing the adverse reaction is unknown. Fortunately for everyone, hives is never a contagious condition.
A hive may vary in size from a small dot to an area as wide as eight inches across and, in some cases, hives may combine to form larger areas known as plaques. Usually, hives last for a few hours to a full day, before fading and disappearing. Very rarely, hives continue to be troublesome for months, in which case the condition is called chronic hives. In severe outbreaks, hives may appear on the tongue or in the throat and interfere with breathing, causing life-threatening complications. If this occurs, medical attention should be sought immediately.
So what causes hives?
Common allergens known to cause hives include animal dander, pollen, insect bites or stings, medications, stress reactions, drastic temperature changes, excessive sweating, and food allergies. The most common foods known to cause hives incluse nuts, shellfish, soy products, gluten, chocolate, strawberries, dairy products, spices, and eggs. Additionally, medications that commonly cause allergic reactions of this type include aspirin, penicillin, other antibiotics, and sulfa.
What are the risk factors for hives?
Individuals with allergies are more likely to develop hives, as are people with a family history of the disorder. Patients with some autoimmune conditions, such as lupus, or certain thyroid disorders, are more prone to hives than people without these diseases.
How are hives treated?
Usually hives, though uncomfortable, is a harmless condition that will resolve on its own. The following treatments may be helpful in alleviating symptoms:
- Wearing soft, loose clothing
- Bathing in lukewarm water, particularly with an oatmeal solution
- Taking over-the-counter antihistamines
- Applying calamine lotion to the site
- Avoiding allergens that may be responsible
Avoiding the allergen that has provoked the reaction is, of course, a good idea, but in many cases the substance or material may remain obscure. If hives are severe, oral antihistamines or oral corticosteroids may be prescribed as treatment. In extreme instances, when the face, tongue or throat swell, or when swallowing or breathing is affected, hives become life-threatening. In such cases, immediate emergency treatment is required in the form of an injection of epinephrine. Patients prone to serious allergic reactions with hives are usually prescribed an EpiPen® auto-injector to carry with them at all times for such contingencies.
If you’re suffering from hives, especially if they’re chronic, see one of Luminary Dermatology’s Board-Certified dermatology providers. Click here to see which location is closest to you!