Hives: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments

Hives are a common health condition that many of us just don’t quite understand. Although they are most common during the summer months, hives can show up totally unannounced at any time. Great, right?

But what exactly are they? What causes them and why do some people get them and others don’t? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about this skin condition and how you can relieve hives. 


What Exactly are Hives?

If you’ve ever had strange red or skin-colored bumps that appeared as quickly as they disappeared, then it’s unlikely to be a simple bug bite. The skin rash could be hives, also known as urticaria, which affects about 20 percent of people at some point or another in their lives. 

Hives are itchy welts on the skin that can vary greatly in their sizes

They can be as small as a tiny pinhead or as big as a dinner plate. They can happen anywhere on the body, and the spots might look like rings, or groups of rings joined together in clusters. 

There are a handful of different types of hives, although the effects are mostly the same.

The different types of hives include:

Acute urticaria. This rash lasts less than six weeks and is usually brought on by an allergic reaction to certain foods or medications. Insect bites and infections can also cause acute urticaria. Once again, mosquitos prove that they are the worst.

Chronic urticaria and angioedema. These relentless rashes last for more than six weeks. They may be caused by an underlying medical condition, such as cancer, hepatitis, or thyroid disease. Chronic urticaria and angioedema is a much more serious and severe form of hives than acute urticaria because it can spread quickly to different areas of the body, including your lungs, GI tract, and muscles. Angioedema is not usually itchy like most forms of hives, but it causes a deeper swelling of the skin. 

Physical urticaria. This is due solely to irritation of the skin. Extreme cold or heat, overexposure to the sun’s powerful UV rays, excessive sweating, or clothes rubbing your skin during a workout can all result in an outbreak. This type of rash is pretty common and rarely spreads beyond the original location.

Dermatographism. This skin condition is when your hives occur due to scratching or vigorously rubbing the skin. 

Cholinergic urticaria. Believe it or not, there’s a form of hives that occurs as a response to your body’s own sweat. Thanks, body. Known as cholinergic urticaria, this form of hives is commonly experienced in the summer and is often referred to as "heat bumps."


Causes of Hives

Experts know a lot more about what’s happening in the body when hives show up vs. what actually triggers them and why. To understand the basics, let’s chat about the body’s allergic response.

So, your body naturally produces mast cells, which act as part of your body's allergic response. When your body feels it’s been exposed to a threat, these mast cells may secrete numerous chemicals, most notably histamine. 

In most cases, histamine causes your blood vessels to dilate and leak fluid, creating the hives. Histamine also affects your nerve cells, signaling your skin to be extremely itchy. 

Many people assume that hives are the result of the release of histamine -- a powerful chemical that your body produces to attack and destroy allergens. Histamine does play a key role in the majority of cases, but it’s important to keep in mind that it can be much more complex than that. Some hives are beyond the scope of histamine and involve other chemicals. 

In other situations where hives occur, basophils (another type of white blood cell) may be activated to release their hive-producing chemicals, causing the same effect. If you’re allergic to things like latex, medications, certain foods, or insects, and you come in contact with your allergen, a protein in your blood called immunoglobulin E will bind to the mast cells, causing them to release their contents -- including histamine. 

Hives may also occur when other blood protein antibodies (besides immunoglobulin E) bind directly onto mast cells, encouraging them to release their contents, or when mast cells are completely destabilized or degranulated, which induces the chemical release. 

So in a nutshell, a hives outbreak happens when high levels of histamine and other strong chemical messengers are released into the skin, causing a rash and other symptoms to surface. 

Different triggers might cause someone to experience an outbreak of hives. 

Some examples of known triggers include:

  • Foods, such as shellfish, eggs, nuts, food additives, wheat products, and strawberries

  • Medications, including some common antibiotics and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin

  • Bacterial infections, including the common cold, glandular fever, influenza, and hepatitis B

  • Extreme temperature changes

  • Intestinal parasites

  • Pet dander from cats, dogs, horses, birds, and so on

  • Dust mites

  • Pollen

  • Lates

  • Insect bites and stings

  • Some plants, including poison ivy, nettles, and poison oak

  • Sunlight exposure

  • Exercise

  • Wet skin

  • Scratching

  • Some chemicals

  • Chronic illness, such as lupus or thyroid disease

In over half of hives cases, people never find the exact cause. Experts believe chronic hives may start as an autoimmune response, but why it happens is unclear. 

If you have a hive outbreak, it's important to keep in mind that certain things can make your symptoms worse, including:

  • Caffeine

  • Stress

  • Overeating

  • Alcohol


How to Treat Hives

In most cases, home remedies and a little bit of TLC are all you need to relieve those hives. As long as you’re not dealing with angioedema or anaphylaxis, which both require immediate medical attention, you can try to relieve your hives at home.  

For starters, the moment you notice a hive breakout, it’s a good idea to immediately jump in the shower. 

It’s possible that you’ve come in contact with an allergen, so getting nice and squeaky clean will help to wash it away. Wash your skin with warm water and soap, and do your best to stay away from chemicals. Instead, use top-notch skin care products made with ingredients and herbals backed by science to help soothe your skin, not irritate it. 

Applying something cool to your skin, such as a cold compress, is also a great way to relieve any irritation. 

To do this, just grab a bag of frozen veggies or wrap a handful of ice in a towel and apply to the affected area for roughly ten minutes, repeating throughout the day as needed. 

Lastly, do your best to relax and avoid scratching that itch. Stress can trigger your hives to worsen, so take it easy!

Since hives usually go away within 24 hours, it’s probably not necessary to go see your doctor if you have just one bout. Although, if your hives don’t go away on their own within a few days, it’s best to make an appointment. 

If your throat or mouth starts to swell or if you experience trouble breathing, this is a medical emergency, and you need to seek care immediately

When to See A Doctor

If your hives appear to come and go for longer than six weeks, they are considered chronic. It’s then a good idea to visit a dermatologist to see what’s going on. 

The caveat? Although hive outbreaks in and of themselves generally aren’t really life-threatening, they can be associated with a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis, which can cause breathing issues, and requires immediate emergency care. 

Angioedema is another condition that can negatively impact your breathing. Roughly 40 to 50 percent of hives are associated with angioedema, which involves swelling of the mouth, hands, feet, eyes, or throat. Meanwhile, anaphylaxis can occur if you’ve been in contact with something you’re allergic to, especially if that allergy is severe. 


Bottom Line

If you’ve ever experienced a hive outbreak, you know firsthand how they can be. They itch, cause welts, and sometimes even sting. Thankfully, getting rid of them is a breeze. 

The moment you notice a hive outbreak coming on, get yourself in the shower ASAP! It’s possible that you’ve come in contact with an allergen, which is the culprit behind your outbreak. 

But whatever you do, stay away from skin care products made with harsh chemicals that can irritate your skin further. Instead, stick with good quality products that are dermatologist approved and backed by science, like the ones found at Topicals

Medicated botanicals made for you, scientifically-proven ingredients, formulated by experts, and made for every shade, Topicals is here to help soothe and heal, no matter what your skin is going through.