If you haven’t tangled with hives before, you might be alarmed when your face and neckline break out in red or flesh-colored welts, or when your kid comes home from school with an itchy hives rash all over his body. So what do you do? You call the doctor (or text a friend or search the web) to find out how to get rid of hives—fast!
So what is the best hives treatment? And are there natural remedies for hives?
Hives, also called urticaria (ur-tih-CARE-ee-uh), is a raised skin rash that typically lasts for a matter of hours or days. Sometimes it takes up to six weeks to clear as new bumps surface and old ones disappear. Cases that persist for more than six weeks are considered chronic hives.
Hives may be triggered by an allergy to food, medication, insect bites, pet dander, pollen, certain plants, or latex. Some people get hives when they’re stressed out. In children, the itchy rash can be due to a viral infection. Or sometimes a physical stimulus–such as heat, cold, sunlight, exercise, or friction or pressure on the skin–can cause hives to erupt.
The body’s immune system responds to each of these threats by waging a chemical attack. The raised patches that appear on your skin occur when histamine and other chemicals cause small blood vessels in the skin to leak blood plasma (a watery, straw-colored fluid).
In most cases, you can quickly clear up hives with over-the-counter antihistamines. Depending on the severity, duration, and cause, doctors may prescribe other medicines too.
As for home remedies? They won’t stop hives but may “have a soothing effect,” says Luz Fonacier, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
Hives usually aren't serious. But whenever someone has hives with wheezing, shortness of breath, tongue swelling, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or lightheadedness, seek emergency medical care. These may be signs of a life-threatening allergic reaction.
If hives are the only concern, follow these basic strategies to get rid of the rash and calm the itch.
A cooling cloth or cold pack may be just the thing to ease the warmth and swelling of hives. Apply as needed.
One exception: If you think exposure to the cold triggered your hives, skip the cold compress. People with “cold urticaria” should avoid situations that worsen their symptoms, such as cold water, cold weather, and use of cold packs.
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Take a bath or shower
For temporary itch relief, immerse yourself in H2O. The question is, at what temperature?
Whether cool water is more comforting than warm depends on your sensory perception of itch, explains Walter Ryan III, DO, an allergy and immunology specialist with the Florida Center for Allergy and Asthma Care in Boca Raton, and a fellow of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
Cold provides numbing relief, he says, while heat can sometimes distract your brain from the itch.
Opt for cooling relief if you think you have “cholinergic urticaria,” a type of hives believed to be caused by sweating due to exercise, fever, or hot baths or showers, for example.
Oatmeal has long been considered a natural soothing and anti-inflammatory agent.
Colloidal oatmeal—oats that are ground, boiled, and milled into a fine powder—can be found in many body washes, bath soaks, and moisturizers on the market. Or, you can add colloidal oatmeal powder directly to your tub for a calming soak.
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Steer clear of tight clothes and other irritants
If you have hives, your skin is already inflamed–so be kind to it. Avoid harsh soaps and other skin irritants since itching and scratching can make hives worse. Drinking alcohol can also make your hives worse.
Wear loose, comfortable clothing, especially if you have “physical urticaria,” a type of hives caused by a stimulus like squeezing or rubbing.
“Even just the pressure in their clothing will make them hive,” says Dr. Fonacier, professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and head of allergy at NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola, New York.
Calamine is the bubblegum-pink liquid your grandma dabbed on your bug bites when you were a kid. As a hives remedy, it can also provide temporary itch relief.
Calamine contains itch-relieving zinc oxide. Caladryl, a similar product, combines calamine and pramoxine, a topical anesthetic. But these lotions are messy, especially if you’ve got hives all over your body.
“It’s still probably more effective for you to just get in the car and go buy an antihistamine,” Dr. Ryan says.
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Take an over-the-counter antihistamine
Antihistamines, the ones you buy in the pharmacy aisle, are the go-to medicines if you really want to get rid of hives.
Benadryl (diphenhydramine) helps by blocking the production of histamine. It works great but can make you drowsy, so it’s best to take it before you go to sleep. Same goes for Chlor-Trimeton (chlorpheniramine), another older antihistamine.
Fortunately, newer, second-generation antihistamines such as Allegra (fexofenadine), Claritin (loratadine), Clarinex (desloratadine), Xyzal (levocetirizine), and Zyrtec (cetirizine) are non-sedating, and “all of them are equally effective,” Dr. Fonacier says.