Allergic Reaction - Hives

Hives – those ugly red or pale bumps that seem to pop up out of nowhere – are truly the scourge of any self respecting skin. Science has even given hives a creepy sounding name: urticaria. Actually, it's not the skin itself that’s reacting to allergens, but tiny blood vessels in the skin, which release histamine and other substances that cause the skin to swell, burn and itch.

One out of five people has hives at one time or another, and on episode can last six weeks. Some people even get hives again and again. To top it off, hives are one of the most unpredictable of allergic reactions: one young woman we know is so susceptible that she broke out in hives just being interviewed about her allergies.

That brings us to the psychological side of hives – which has been quite overrated. While you are more apt to break out when you’re worried or distraught, most people get hives in response to something they eat, breathe or touch. Drugs such as penicillin and aspirin are the most common cause of allergic hives. If you’re a victim of chronic hives, you should read Don’t Overlook Drugs As A Cause.

In 5 to 10 percent of all people with hives, diet aggravates or triggers the problem. The most common causes of food induced hives are nuts, fish, eggs, seafood, strawberries, yeast, salicylates (aspirin related compounds in certain foods), azo dyes or other benzoates (common preservatives in fruit products and fruit drinks).

As a matter of fact, researchers have noted that nearly half of all people with chronic, hard to diagnose hives are allergic to aspirin and other salicylates, and, to a lesser degree, to tartrazine and benzoates. So if you’re bothered by hives, it may be worthwhile to eliminate those substances from your diet and see if the problem subsides.

A researchers in the Netherlands did just that with 47 of his patients, and the results were terrific. Sixty seven percent of the people with chronic, unexplained hives had a prompt and permanent cure. Even more surprisingly, half the people with heat induced hives – usually a thorny problem – were cured.

Going off the diet and eating one of the offending substances invariably triggered a rapid and immediate outbreak of hives – confirming the diagnosis (Dermatology, vol 54, no. 5, 1977). Two other common additives that are beginning to show up as causes of hives are BHA and BHT (butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydroxytoluene).

In one instance, a 32 year old pediatrician suffered from hives for three years before allergy specialists finally isolated BHA and BHT as the cause (Annals of Allergy, February, 1979). Potato chips, breakfast cereals, canned pudding, doughnuts and pork sausages are just a few of the foods likely to contain BHA and BHT.

Reading labels helps to avoid those and additives, as does cutting down on processes foods. Detailed instructions for completely eliminating any of the foods that cause hives are outlined in Rotary Diets (incidentally, it's a little known fact that benzoic acid occurs naturally in peas and bananas. If you’re trying to avoid benzoates, avoid those two foods).

As bad as hives are, people with hives are luckier than people with other allergic reactions – hives have a tendency to disappear for good. People with food induced hives are often able to return to their regular diet after as little as six months of dietary control.

Infants who develop hives when new or solid foods are first introduced may later tolerate those foods if they are withdrawn and reintroduced after the child is 12 months old. By the time, their intestinal enzymes will have matured enough to break down food molecules so that they are no longer allergenic, says John R. T. Reeves, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine.

People who get hives from the cold should also read the entry on allergy to cold temperatures, Other Unexpected Allergies. And because hives tend to aggravated by emotional distress, we suggest readers review Mind Over Allergy, for tips on how to cope with stress.