If you see welts forming on your skin, you may wonder what’s going on. Chances are, you have a case of hives or a related condition known as angioedema.
Hives (also known as urticaria) are characterized by raised welts on the skin that are:
- Red or flesh-colored
- Highly itchy (but may also burn or sting)
- Varied in size from a small spot to a large blotch several inches in diameter
Hives affect the surface of the skin, but angioedema affects deeper skin layers. As a result, angioedema tends to feel thick and firm. Angioedema can be painful and can also feel warm to the touch. While hives can develop anywhere on the body, angioedema tends to form near the eyes, cheeks, or lips. In some cases, angioedema can cause the tongue and throat to swell. This can obstruct the airways and become life-threatening.
The causes of hives and angioedema are similar. They commonly result from allergic reactions to foods, medicine, latex, pet dander, pollen, or insect stings. They may also accompany health problems such as thyroid conditions, immune system disorders such as lupus, and certain types of cancer, including lymphoma.
In rare cases, angioedema can be inherited. In these instances, the condition may spurred by a deficiency of blood proteins that regulate immune system function.
Hives and angioedema can flare up acutely (lasting for less than six weeks) or chronically (lasting for more than six weeks). It is common for most people to be affected by a case or two of these skin disorders in their lifetime. Acute cases will usually go away in a day or so. They can be treated with antihistamines and topical creams to relieve discomfort.
If these skin disorders develop frequently or last long enough to be classified as chronic, you may want to explore longer-lasting treatment options. For example, if your hives or angioedema are allergy-related, consider a treatment known as immunotherapy. The treatment is available through allergy shots (subcutaneous immunotherapy) or oral allergy drops (sublingual immunotherapy).
Often, the cost of allergy drops or allergy shots is well worth it because, unlike antihistamines, they offer a lasting solution. They treat the underlying allergy rather than just the symptoms.
To find out if allergies are causing your hives or angioedema, talk to your doctor. He or she can order an allergy test kit for physicians and measure your reaction to the most common allergen extracts. They can then prescribe an appropriate treatment based on your sensitivities.