Hives: what You Need to Know

These itchy welts can show up anywhere on your skin. They’re caused by an allergic or as a reaction to stress or viruses. Your doctor may call them urticaria. They can last a few minutes or several days before they go away. Sometimes they’re a sign of more serious problems, especially when you have trouble breathing.

With an outbreak of hives, you may notice:

  • Raised, whitish or reddish welts of varying size on the skin, especially in the waist or armpit areas.
  • The welts itch intensely, often at night.
  • Welts come and go over minutes or hours.

Hives that come back or that last more than 6 weeks are considered chronic urticaria and require further evaluation.

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If you have hives along with fever, nausea, stomach cramps, shortness of breath, and a drop in blood pressure after a bee sting, insect bite, or drug injection, that can be a sign of a life-threatening allergy. If your doctor has prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector for you, make sure you have two with you at all times. Use one and then call 911 or go to the hospital.

What Is Angioedema?

Another reaction that sometimes happens along with hives is called angioedema. It’s swelling that develops under the skin. It often affects the eyes and lips, and sometimes the genitals, hands, and feet.

It’s rare, but the swelling from angioedema can happen in your throat and cause trouble breathing. If that happens, use an auto-injector and call 911.

What Causes Hives?

They pop up when skin cells release a substance called histamine. It’s the start of the process we call an allergic reaction. Common triggers for hives include:

  • Foods like milk, fish, or nuts
  • Drugs like aspirin or penicillin
  • Food additives like flavorings and preservatives
  • Bug bites
  • Extreme cold or heat
  • Pressure on the skin
  • Viral infections
  • Skin contact with allergens

How Do You Treat Hives?

There’s one surefire way: Figure out what’s causing them and stay away from it. You can take antihistamines to ease your symptoms.

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If over-the-counter medicine doesn't help or your hives won’t go away, see your doctor. They may prescribe steroid pills or prescription antihistamines.

At home, try these tips:

  • Apply cool compresses or wet cloths to the hives.
  • Try to work and sleep in a cool room.
  • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothes.

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