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What's causing your hives?

A woman scratches red spots on her forearm.

Jan. 8, 2021—Your skin's breaking out, and it's not acne. Those itchy, red welts? They're hives.

Hives are swollen, irritated areas of skin that may resemble spots, blotches or raised lines, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. They're often an allergic reaction to something in your environment, but there can be other causes.

Hives can come and go quickly. But some people have repeated outbreaks—or chronic hives that last for days or weeks at a time.

Many causes, many solutions

If your hives are mild, you may find temporary relief from over-the-counter antihistamines or calamine lotions and cold compresses (unless cold is a trigger for you).

But if that doesn't help control them long-term, you may need to see a doctor to find out what's behind your hives. The doctor can examine your hives, possibly do some blood or skin tests to identify allergies you may have, and rule out infections or other medical conditions that could be to blame.

If you can identify a trigger for your hives, there might be steps you can take to avoid or treat it. For example:

Allergies. Hives can be a reaction to allergens, including:

  • Foods, such as peanuts, eggs, nuts and shellfish.
  • Medications, such as antibiotics, aspirin and ibuprofen.
  • Pollen.
  • Insect stings.
  • Pet dander or animal saliva.
  • Latex.

To help control your allergies, your doctor may prescribe a daily antihistamine medicine. Severe hives are sometimes treated with corticosteroid medicines or drugs called immune modulators.

A physical trigger—such as cold air or water, hot weather or showers, sunlight exposure, or skin pressure from tight clothes or straps from a purse. In these cases, changing what you wear or what temperatures you're exposed to may help.

Emotional stress. Some people get hives when their bodies release the hormone adrenaline. Making time in your day to relax may help reduce hives worsened by stress.

Alcohol. Drinking alcohol may worsen hives. If you need help to cut back, ask your doctor.

Not getting enough sleep. Too little shut-eye can exacerbate chronic hives. If you're having trouble sleeping, try these tips.

Unsolved mystery?

Keeping track of when your hives occur and what you were doing then may help your doctor identify possible triggers. But even if you can't find the cause of your hives, treatment may still help. Even better, hives often go away on their own over time.

Discover more about your skin and ways to keep it healthy in our Skin health topic center.

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