a boy with urticaria

What is Urticaria?

Urticaria is the medical community's formal term for hives, a condition that occurs as a reaction to something in your environment and results in red, swollen, itchy welts on your skin. Though urticaria is not a life-threatening condition, it is still very uncomfortable and it can interfere with sleep and other daily activities.

Urticaria Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of hives usually begin with patches of white or red welts appearing on your face, torso, legs, or arms. These welts will vary in size and shape and will fade and reappear multiple times as the reaction runs its course. The welts will usually itch as well, sometimes extremely so. The welts may also be accompanied by swelling, pain, and burning. The hives usually appear as a reaction to something in your environment—but sometimes urticaria will flare up for sometimes no reason at all. Urticaria flare-ups tend to be based on triggers such as heat, exercise, and stress.

Urticaria Causes

The welts associated with hives are the result of skin cells releasing the chemical histamine into the bloodstream. Though the exact cause for this reaction sometimes remains unknown, it can sometimes be narrowed down on a case-by-case basis. The most common triggers for this skin reaction include:

  • Insects or parasites
  • Stress
  • Exercise
  • Sunlight
  • Pressure on the skin, such as a tight waistband
  • Pain medications
  • Infections
  • Cold or heat
  • Alcohol or some foods

Urticaria Treatments

Treatment for urticaria will vary depending on your specific circumstances. It is usually recommended that you attempt to treat your symptoms with over-the-counter antihistamines at first. If these do not improve your condition, you can work with your doctor to find a treatment plan that works best for you.

First, your doctor will probably try to figure out if you have an underlying condition that is linked to your hives. For example, thyroiditis can cause chronic hives, and the hives are usually improved by treating the thyroid problem.

If both antihistamines and the search for an underlying condition are unsuccessful, then your doctor might decide to try some other medication options. These include:

  • H-2 blockers – These medications can be taken orally or injected, and they work to block the histamine from being released into your blood stream.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications – For temporary relief, oral corticosteroids such as prednisone can be used to lessen swelling, redness, and itching. These kinds of medications can only be used for a short period of time since they can lead to serious side effects.
  • Antidepressants – Some cream forms of tricyclic antidepressant medications such as doxepin can help relieve itching.

Urticaria Prevention

There are some things you can do to help prevent your urticaria from flaring up. Wearing loose, light clothing can be helpful since it will keep your clothes from irritating your skin. Avoiding the urge to scratch the welts will also help, since scratching tends to make the hives worse. Keep a log of what you were eating and what you were doing when your hives occurred. If you can identify triggers then it can help you to avoid them in the future. 

Last Updated: April 20, 2015