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Hives and angioedema

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Oct 27, 2023.

Overview

Hives — also known as urticaria (ur-tih-KAR-e-uh) — is a skin reaction that causes itchy welts that range in size from small spots to large blotches. Hives can be triggered by many situations and substances, including certain foods and medications.

Angioedema can arise with hives or alone. It causes swelling in the deeper layers of skin, often around the face and lips. Short-lived (acute) hives and angioedema are common. Most times, they are harmless, clear up within in a day and don't leave any lasting marks, even without treatment. Hives that last longer than six weeks are called chronic hives.

Hives and angioedema are usually treated with antihistamine medication. Angioedema can be life-threatening if swelling of the tongue or in the throat blocks the airway.

Hives

Illustration of hives on different skin colors. Hives can cause swollen, itchy welts. Hives is also called urticaria.

Angioedema

Illustration of angioedema on different skin colors. Angioedema causes swelling in the deeper layers of skin, often of the face and lips. It often goes away within a day.

Symptoms

Hives

The welts associated with hives can be:

Most hives appear quickly and go away within 24 hours. This is known as acute hives. Chronic hives can last for months or years.

Angioedema

Angioedema is a reaction similar to hives that affects deeper layers of the skin. It can appear with hives or alone. Signs and symptoms include:

When to see a doctor

You can usually treat mild cases of hives or angioedema at home. See your health care provider if your symptoms continue for more than a few days.

If you think your hives or angioedema was caused by a known allergy to food or a medication, your symptoms may be an early sign of an anaphylactic reaction. Seek emergency care if you feel your tongue, lips, mouth or throat swelling or if you're having trouble breathing.

Causes

For most people who experience acute hives and angioedema, the exact cause can't be identified. The conditions are sometimes caused by:

Risk factors

Hives and angioedema are common. You may be at increased risk of hives and angioedema if you:

Complications

Severe angioedema can be life-threatening if swelling of the tongue or in the throat blocks the airway.

Prevention

To lower your likelihood of experiencing hives or angioedema, take the following precautions:

Diagnosis

To diagnose hives or angioedema, your doctor will likely look at your welts or areas of swelling and ask about your medical history. You may also need blood tests or an allergy skin test.

Treatment

If your symptoms are mild, you may not need treatment. Hives and angioedema often clear up on their own. But treatment can offer relief from intense itching, serious discomfort or symptoms that persist.

Medications

Treatments for hives and angioedema may include prescription drugs:

Emergency situations

For a severe attack of hives or angioedema, you may need a trip to the emergency room and an emergency injection of epinephrine — a type of adrenaline. If you have had a serious attack or your attacks recur despite treatment, your doctor may have you carry a penlike device that will allow you to self-inject epinephrine in emergencies.

Lifestyle and home remedies

If you're experiencing mild hives or angioedema, these tips may help relieve your symptoms:

Preparing for an appointment

You're likely to start by seeing your primary care doctor. In some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred immediately to a skin disease specialist (dermatologist) or to an allergy specialist.

What you can do

Here are some tips to help you get ready for your appointment.

For hives and angioedema, questions you may want to ask include:

What to expect from your doctor

Examples of questions your doctor may ask, include:

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