PAMF Health Blog

Be Well, Be Well Informed

Hives: What Are They?

Posted on Feb 5, 2014


Acute hives are a common allergic condition of the skin. Hives are a symptom of the body’s immune system reacting (or over-reacting) to something in the environment or in the body. Unfortunately, what is actually causing the hives is frequently not found.

When hives first appear, reactions to medications or foods are possible causes. Occasionally the hives are a result of the immune system’s over-reaction to a recent infection, such as a cold or flu. Hives are rarely due to a reaction to something touching the skin, such as soaps, detergents or lotions, although these can cause different types of allergic skin reactions. These reactions tend to remain on the skin where contact was made, whereas hives come and go rapidly.

If your doctor suspects the cause to be a new medication, the doctor will discontinue the medication. Your doctor will tell you if you can start the medication again or if a substitute medicine is appropriate. Any suspected food should be eliminated from the diet. The most common food triggers are nuts, shellfish and seeds. In children, milk, eggs and soy are common offenders. If no improvement is seen within one week, the food can be re-introduced.

The treatment of choice for hives is antihistamines, either over-the counter (OTC) or by prescription (Rx). There are a number of antihistamines and they can be used together to control the itching and the hives. These medicines should work immediately, and if one does not work within two days, an alternative medicine should be tried. Occasionally, histamine (H2) blockers will be added to the other antihistamines. These usually take a few days to a few weeks to work.

If the hives are severe you may have swelling. This is called angioedema and is most likely to occur on the face, hands and feet. Sometimes, the facial swelling can be dramatic, especially around the lips and/or eyes. Fortunately, it is very uncommon for the hives to become severe enough to cause breathing or swallowing difficulties. Should this ever occur, however, contact your doctor immediately.

An evaluation by an allergy specialist is recommended if the hives persist for more than two to three months. Remember, even with this specialist evaluation, the specific cause for the hives is unlikely to be found.

For more information, you can visit the American Academy of Dermatology website section on hives.