Allergies – What Are Hives?

Hives (allergic urticaria) are red, itchy bumps near the surface of the skin. Like many other allergies, they are the result of overproduction of histamine. That reaction can be produced by a wide variety of things.

In many cases, hives are the consequence of a food allergy. Eggs, peanuts, shellfish, milk and other foods can cause hives. The bumps aren’t generally painful but the itchiness is uncomfortable and the hives can be made worse by scratching.

They may also be the result of a drug sensitivity. Penicillin shots and antibiotics may produce them. Blood pressure control medicine can cause hives. But even simple aspirin or ibuprofen are the culprit among some allergy sufferers.

In still other patients, airborne or contact allergens like pollen and animal dander can produce the characteristic red swellings. Insect stings, such as those of bees and wasps, typically produce breathing difficulty for those sensitive to the venom. But hives are far from unknown in this case, as well.

In short, any allergen that produces more common allergy symptoms can also produce hives. Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eyelid membrane) and allergic rhinitis or hay fever (an inflammation of the nasal membranes) are more typical. But hives are similar in that they result from overproduction of histamine and other cytokines that produce swelling.

What To Do?

Prevention is always the best option, when possible. Beyond keeping the environment relatively free of allergens and foregoing certain foods, though, there is no ‘cure’, only symptom treatments.

Itching and swelling can be handled by application of a cold compress. A cool shower may bring only temporary relief, but sometimes ‘temporary’ is long enough. Avoid scratching and wear clothing that doesn’t irritate the area further.

Non-prescription antihistamine medications like Benadryl (diphenhydramine) or Claritin (loratadine) can help reduce hives. The latter has the added benefit that it doesn’t typically cause drowsiness.

Prescription medications are sometimes just a stronger dose of the same substances. But some medicines contain different compounds. Atarax (hydroxyzine) and Allegra (fexofenadine) are two frequently prescribed alternatives. In more severe cases, physicians may suggest an oral corticosteroid such as prednisone.

Since there are many conditions that can produce red, swollen bumps (such as acne, for example) it’s important to know when you have hives. Only a professional diagnosis can produce a definitive answer. But there are common things to look for.

Allergies tend to run in families, though individuals don’t always have the same sensitivity in kind or degree. Also, learn to distinguish between urticaria and contact dermatitis from poison ivy. The latter is the result of contact with the plant’s oil and it spreads by moving the oil over the skin. Hives are produced from the inside.

For those who are especially sensitive, it can be beneficial to have an EpiPen or similar device on hand. These allow the self-administration of a controlled dose of epinephrine to treat anaphylaxis.


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