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Urticaria is a skin condition that causes itchy welts. These welts are red or white in color and appear raised. They can disappear in a few hours or may take up to 6 weeks to clear. Let us learn more about this common, but a painful skin condition.

What is Urticaria?

Urticaria is also called as ‘hives’ or ‘nettle rash’. This condition leads to appearance of painful, itchy and at times with a burning sensation welt or wheals. When it is accompanied with swelling around the eyes, face, hands and feet or genitals,  it is called as angioedema. This swelling occurs under the skin and can last for about 24 hours.

This is a very common condition as it is seen in one person in five. In most cases, it is a mildly discomforting condition that can settle down in just a few hours of appearance. However, in certain people, it can be a severe rash that may take about 6 weeks to clear.

Hives tend to cause itching. At times they may sting or burn. They can appear anywhere on the body, even in your ears, throat or on your face, lips or other parts of the body. They can either be as small as a pinhead or may be even bigger than a tennis ball in size. At times, many hives tend to merge together leading to formation of plaques.

When urticaria appears in the throat, lungs or on the tongue, it tends to block the air passages. This leads to difficulty breathing and can turn into a life threatening condition.

What Causes Urticaria?

It is always thought allergies lead to urticaria. However, the truth is urticaria is a symptom of allergies. In many cases, one cannot pinpoint the exact cause for urticaria or hives.

Urticaria is an inflammation of the skin. It occurs when mast cells release histamine or other chemicals in the blood. This causes small blood vessels to leak leading to hives. This can occur due to some of the following reasons:

  • Ingestion of certain foods or additives like nuts, peanuts, shellfish, eggs, etc.
  • Reaction to certain drugs like penicillin or sulfa
  • Toxins released into the body by insect bites or stings
  • Blood transfusions
  • Exposure to UV rays of the sun

Types of Urticaria

There are different types of urticaria that are categorized according to the cause, appearance or duration.

  • Acute urticaria:  This is a type of hive that lasts for less than 6 weeks. It appears within minutes of exposure to the allergen. The allergen in this case could be certain foods, bee or wasp stings, medicines such as aspirin, NSAIDs, etc. Some people are allergic to certain fragrances too and develop welts the minute the skin comes in contact with the perfume.
  • Drug induced: There are many drugs that lead to urticaria like ibuprofen, penicillin, sulfa drugs, anticonvulsants, antidiabetic, etc.
  • Infections: Parasitic infections such as ascaroasos, fascioliasis, can lead to an allergic reaction leading to hives.
  • Stress: At times, vigorous physical activity, exercise or emotional upheaval can lead to hives. These hives last for a shorter while and are much smaller than acute hives.
  • Autoimmune urticaria: This is caused by autoimmune conditions such as lupus or thyroid disorder.
  • Physical urticaria: Hives that are caused due to physical stimuli like sweating, cold, heat, UV rays, vibration, pressure,  etc. come under this type. In this case, hives appear only in that area that has been stimulated by the physical stimuli.

How do I Know I am Suffering from Urticaria?

The symptoms of urticaria are as follows:

  • Appearance of small round wheals or patches
  • The wheals may change their shape
  • Itchiness and burning sensation around the wheals
  • Appear on the face, hands, legs commonly
  • At times, hives may be accompanied by swelling (angioedema) around the eyes, lips, tongue, throat, genitalia, hands and feet.
  • Angioedema causes pain, burning and lead to difficulty in breathing

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Tests for Diagnosis

The doctor may ask you about your activity before you developed the hives. He may make a note of all the things you are, drank or medications taken. The doctor may also note the area where the hives appeared and the duration of hives. Tests such as blood tests, allergy test and other tests to pinpoint other conditions leading to hives may be conducted.

Treatment for Urticaria

The best way to treat urticaria is to identify the cause or allergen. Once this is done, one should avoid the allergen at all cost to prevent the reappearance of hives. However, in many cases, it is very difficult to identify the exact cause. The symptoms of hives can be controlled with the help of oral corticosteroids, antihistamines or an injection of steroid or epinephrine.

During hives, make sure you apply a cool compress to the affected part. Make sure you stay in a cool environment. Switch on the fan or AC of the room. Wear loose-fitting clothes. Use lukewarm water to clean the area and get some relief from the itchiness.

Urticaria and angioedema will disappear in a few hours or days. However, make sure you call your doctor and take his advice related to your condition. If you experience dizziness, vomiting or difficulty breathing, immediately visit the nearest hospital for medical help.

Written by: Saptakee sengupta
Date last updated: February 02, 2015