Originally Published: December 1, 1993 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: December 6, 2010
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Dear Alice,

What about hives?


Dear Itchy,

Hives, or urticaria in medical jargon, are raised, red, and usually itchy patches of skin ("wheals") that appear suddenly and then later disappear without a trace. They can appear all over the body, but usually appear first on the trunk and upper arms and legs, and can last a couple of days. In fact, the itching can be so intense that it keeps people from working and/or sleeping. Hives are also common: one out of every five people will have hives at some time during his/her life.

Hives are one of the body's responses to the presence of histamine or other chemicals in the blood. They are often, but not always, caused by allergies. During an allergic reaction, the body recognizes a relatively harmless substance (e.g., certain foods, some medications, new soaps, lotions, and perfumes, pollen, and animal hair) as a dangerous intruder and mounts an immune response to it. Other triggers that can cause hives include:

  • sunlight
  • heat
  • cold
  • constricting clothing
  • anxiety
  • exercise
  • insect stings/bites
  • recent (viral) infections
  • blood transfusions

An allergic reaction may begin with hives and quickly progress to become more serious, even life-threatening. Symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction include difficulty breathing or swallowing, lightheadedness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, and/or loss of consciousness. If someone experiences any of these symptoms, it is an emergency. Call 911. The person needs to go to a hospital for immediate care.

As with other allergic reactions, it's possible to recognize and then avoid triggers that can cause hives. At times, the exact cause of hives can be obvious, but other situations may require more in-depth detective work. If this is the case, working with a health care provider or allergist can serve as a stepping stone to identifying the triggers for hives. If you are a Columbia Student, you can call x4-2284 or log into Open Communicator to schedule an appointment.

Aside from over-the-counter and prescription medications, the following suggestions can help someone soothe or prevent itchiness:

  • cold packs or baths (rather than hot baths or showers)
  • wearing loose-fitting clothing
  • minimizing exposure to sunlight or using sunscreen when outdoors
  • minimizing strenuous activities

There is relief, and it involves attending to life's little details.

For more information on hives, check out the following sites:

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

MedLine Plus