Hives are a skin reaction that causes red or white itchy welts. The welts vary in size and appear and fade repeatedly as the reaction runs its course.
Chronic hives are a condition in which the welts last more than six weeks or recur over months or years. Chronic hives usually aren’t life-threatening. But the condition can be very uncomfortable and interfere with sleep and daily activities.
Chronic hives signs and symptoms include:
- Batches of red or white welts (wheals), usually on the face, trunk, arms or legs
- Welts that vary in size, change shape, and appear and fade repeatedly as the reaction runs its course
- Itching, which may be severe
- Swelling that causes pain or burning (angioedema), especially inside the throat and around the eyes, cheeks, lips, hands, feet and genitals
- A tendency for signs and symptoms to flare with triggers such as heat, exercise and stress
- A tendency for symptoms to recur frequently and unpredictably, sometimes for months or years
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you have:
- Severe hives
- Hives that don’t respond to treatment
- Hives that continue to appear for several days
Seek emergency care if you:
- Feel dizzy
- Have severe chest tightness or trouble breathing
- Feel your tongue or throat swelling
The welts that come with hives arise when certain cells release histamine and other chemicals into your bloodstream.
Doctors often can’t identify the reason for this skin reaction, or why it sometimes turns into a long-term problem (chronic hives). But the skin reaction may be triggered by:
- Pain medications
- Insects or parasites
- Heat or cold
- Alcohol, food or food additives
- Pressure on the skin, as from a tight waistband
Factors that increase your risk of developing chronic hives include:
- Being female, as women are affected twice as often as men
- Being a young adult
Chronic hives complications include:
- Difficulty breathing. When swelling occurs inside your mouth or throat, you may have difficulty breathing and pass out. Seek emergency medical care if you feel your tongue or throat swelling.
- Serious allergic reaction. Anaphylactic shock (anaphylaxis) is a serious allergic reaction involving your heart or lungs. Your bronchial tubes narrow, it’s difficult to breathe, and your blood pressure drops. You may feel dizzy, pass out or even die. Anaphylactic shock happens fast. Seek emergency medical care if you feel this type of allergic reaction coming on.
People with chronic hives may be at increased risk of developing these immune system disorders:
- Thyroid disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- Celiac disease
- Type 1 diabetes
Tests and diagnosis
Physical exam and medical history
Your doctor will do a physical exam and ask you a number of questions to try to understand what might be causing your symptoms. He or she may also ask you to keep a diary to keep track of:
- Your activities
- Any medications, herbal remedies or supplements you take
- What you eat and drink
- Where hives appear and how long it takes a welt to fade
It isn’t always possible to determine the underlying cause of chronic hives. If the first-choice therapies haven’t worked for you, your doctor may order one or more tests, including:
- Blood tests
- Allergy tests, though only if your medical history and food diary haven’t helped identify the cause of your hives
- Tests to rule out underlying conditions
Treatments and drugs
Your doctor will likely recommend you treat your symptoms with home remedies, such as over-the-counter antihistamines. If self-care steps don’t help, talk with your doctor about finding the prescription medication or combination of drugs that works best for you.
Treat any underlying factors causing your symptoms.For example, people with chronic hives and inflamed thyroid (thyroiditis) may best be helped by treating the thyroid problem.
Take nondrowsy forms of antihistamine pills.The newer forms of the drugs (second-generation antihistamines) have fewer side effects, such as drowsiness, than older antihistamines:
Take older forms of antihistamine pills. If the newer antihistamines don’t help you, your doctor may recommend you take an older form of the drug, but only before bedtime, as it can make you drowsy. Examples include:
Check with your doctor before taking any of these medications if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, have a chronic medical condition, or are taking other medications.
Try other medications. If antihistamines alone don’t relieve your symptoms, other drugs that may help include:
- Histamine (H-2) blockers. These medications, also called H-2 receptor antagonists, may be injected or taken orally. Examples include cimetidine , ranitidine nizatidine and famotidine . Side effects range from digestive problems to headache.
- Anti-inflammation medications. Oral corticosteroids, such as prednisone, can help lessen swelling, redness and itching. These usually are used only for a short time to control severe hives or angioedema because they can cause serious side effects.
Corticosteroids creams applied to the skin usually aren’t effective for chronic hives. Corticosteroids can weaken your immune system, making it easier for you to get an infection or worsening an infection you already have.
- The tricyclic antidepressant doxepin, used in cream form, can help relieve itching. This drug may cause dizziness and drowsiness.
Ask about other options. Several medications under study show promise for people whose chronic hives resist treatment
Lifestyle and home remedies
The following precautions may help prevent or soothe the recurring skin reactions of chronic hives:
- Wear loose, light clothing.
- Avoid scratching or using harsh soaps.
- Cool the affected area with a shower, fan, cool cloth or soothing lotion.
- Keep a diary of when and where hives occur, what you were doing, what you were eating, and so on. This may help you and your doctor identify triggers.
- Avoid known triggers, such as certain foods or additives, alcohol, pain relievers, heat, cold, exertion, and stress.