Hives

By:    Published: November 20, 2011

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Hives, also known as urticaria, are red welts that appear on the skin and are typically caused by an allergic reaction to foods or medication. They may appear like a normal skin rash that is slightly raised, forming in large patches. Hives may also connect to one another, giving the appearance of very large welts on the affected area.

What Is It?

Hives are a type of skin rash that can appear in the form of raised welts or blotches that range in size. The skin reaction is usually considered harmless and tends to subside on its own. Though there size and sudden appearance may be cause for alarm, hive outbreaks typically subside within 24 hours or less. However, there are some cases where a hive may subside and suddenly reappear, causing the outbreak to last for several days.

The appearance of welts around the face, especially around the lips and eyes, is referred to as angioedema. This type of outbreak is very similar to hives, except the swelling is actually beneath the skin rather than on the surface, as is the case with hives.

Causes and Risk Factors

While hives are commonly associated with an allergic reaction to certain foods and medications, there are several other allergens that may cause this skin reaction:

  • Insect bites
  • Animal dander
  • Pollen

Other hive triggers unrelated to an allergic reaction include:

  • Emotional stress
  • Exposure to extreme cold
  • Over-exposure to the sun
  • Sweating excessively
  • Infections
  • Certain illnesses, like lupus, leukemia and other autoimmune diseases

Signs and Symptoms

The primary sign of hives is the appearance of red welts on the skin that are raised and swollen on the surface. These welts can also appear skin-colored with a defined edge that makes them identifiable. Hives may become enlarged, spread and connect together, forming a large, red area of raised skin. They may or may not itch, and they may disappear and reappear sporadically. In some rare cases, the affected area may have a burning or stinging sensation.

There are two types of hive outbreaks:

  • Acute uticaria: These types of hives can subside within hours, or may last up to several weeks.
  • Chronic uticaria: This is used to describe a hive outbreak that lasts more than several weeks, and can even last from months to years.

Although it is commonly associated with hives, angioedema is not quite the same and can appear with or without a hives outbreak. Angiodema is a similar reaction that affects the tissues underneath the skin, causing swelling below the skin instead of on the surface.

Treatment

In most situations, hives will disappear within a few hours or days. No treatment is necessary if the hives are not extensive. It is recommended that you avoid taking hot showers and wearing clothes that will cause your skin to become further irritated. Since hives is commonly linked to an allergic reaction that can cause the body to release histamines into the bloodstream, antihistamines can be taken for relief, but are usually unnecessary. In some rare cases of a severe outbreak, emergency treatment involving a shot of steroids or adrenaline may be necessary, especially if hives appear around the throat, which can make breathing difficult.

Complications

Since hives is typically caused by an allergic reaction, anaphylactic shock can be a possible complication that is life threatening. During anaphylactic shock, the whole body may suffer from an allergic reaction. If person with hives shows any symptoms or signs of anaphylaxis, medical attention should be sought immediately.

Like it was mentioned above, hives that appear around the neck area may cause complications due the swelling’s impact on a person’s breathing. If breathing becomes difficult or if you feel like you are going to pass out, seek medical attention.

Prevention

To avoid the risk of a hives outbreak, a person should avoid any known triggers. After experiencing hives, a journal that lists possible triggers can be recorded for future reference. This is especially helpful for those who are not aware of a possible allergic reaction they may have suffered. It is also helpful if the outbreak was not triggered by an allergic reaction at all, such as the case for a hives outbreak due to emotional stress or an infection.

Although they may appear like a serious skin condition, hives are not considered life-threatening. However, do not hesitate to consult a physician or seek medical attention after an outbreak. While the symptoms should subside on their own, there may be a risk of complications due to a more serious allergic reaction.

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