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Learn all about Angioedema, also known as giant hives; the causes, symptoms, how to get a diagnosis, and how to treat it

Hives are a common reaction to skin coming into contact with an allergen, either in the home or outside exposed to the elements of nature. They are classified as raised patches of skin that are accompanied by a burning sensation, uncontrollable itch and redness surrounding the area affected.

If the hives are in conjunction with massive swelling, fluid buildup and a rapid spread rate; this could be the signs of an underlying medical issue – angioedema. If a person is suffering from angioedema, then it is important they seek professional medical help as soon as possible as this issue can cause long-term health problems if left untreated.

Diagnosis

To be diagnosed with angioedema, a visit to a medical professional is in order to rule out other medical conditions with similar symptoms. As this condition is usually accompanied by an outbreak of hives; the first thing that the doctor will consider is the length of time that the hives have been on the skin. Hives that have persisted for longer than six weeks are generally the sign of angioedema. Additional blood tests and allergy tests might be performed to confirm the medical condition is, indeed, angioedema.

Angioedema is defined as the swelling of the deeper layers of skin due to fluid buildup below the surface. Common areas where the swelling occurs is the face, tongue, arms and legs while in severe cases it can occur in throat, lungs and stomach tracts. While not typically fatal or life-threatening, it does have the potential to cause fatalities when it occurs in one of the areas named above for severe cases.

Causes

  • Allergic reaction
  • Stress
  • Medical conditions
  • Exposure to elements

Angioedema is often the result of an allergic reaction, hence the reason that the hives appear on the surface of the skin. These allergic reactions cause an increase in the level of histamines in the bloodstream, creating fluid buildup and swelling.

Rarer cases of reported angioedema have been found to be caused by stress, medical conditions, and exposure to extreme outdoor elements (below freezing cold or high humidity weather).

Some cases are the result of a medication that has recently been taken but the doctor should disclose such information before prescribing it to a patient.

Symptoms

  • Hives
  • Numbing
  • Tingling
  • Burning
  • Swelling of skin
  • Swelling of throat and tongue
  • Abdominal pain

Hives and angioedema as closely associated with each other in the terms of potential causes, but the symptoms are definitely on different ends of the scale.

Rather than the itch of hives, angioedema leaves the person with a numbing, tingling and/or burning sensation in the area that is affected. The first and foremost sign of this condition is the swelling of the skin in the deeper layers as the fluid from the allergic reaction builds. This fluid buildup is typically present in the face, particularly the eyes, lips and nose areas and can be accompanied by redness and swelling. Cases have also shown this swelling in the arms and legs of the patient and the genitals.

Other symptoms can include the swelling of the throat and tongue, which can have a negative impact on breathing. If this occurs, a visit to the doctor or emergency department is absolutely necessary.

People have reported experiencing moderate to severe abdominal pain as well during an angioedema outbreak and sometimes this can be the only symptom of a medical condition occurring in the body.

Treatment

  • Natural remedies to soothe (but won’t cure)
  • Antihistamines
  • Steroids

Treatment of angioedema is mild with fast results when treated properly. While home remedies such as oatmeal baths, baking soda paste, and Aloe-Vera can relive the symptoms of the accompanying hives; it will not reduce the symptoms of angioedema. Cold compresses can provide relief for the burning sensation but typically a round of antihistamines are needed to fully clear up the issue.

These antihistamines can be purchased at a local drug store or pharmacy along with prescription strength versions that can only be obtained by visiting a doctor. These tablets, taken orally, will counter the elevated levels of histamines found in the bloodstream to reduce swelling, burning and fluid buildup.

A doctor may also prescribe an oral steroid to counteract against the fluid buildup, but these should only be used as prescribed. Oral steroids have been clinically linked to high blood pressure, mood swings, insomnia, and weight gain due to changes in appetite.

Mild cases of angioedema will go away on their own but more severe cases will require a doctor’s visit.

Management plan

  • Change in lifestyle
  • Narrow down triggers
  • Avoid triggers
  • Look into your genetics

Managing a condition such as angioedema doesn’t mean that the person suffering has to change their lifestyle in major ways. It starts with being aware of what could become potential triggers for the allergic reaction and avoiding them whenever necessary. Use good judgment when it comes to potential triggers, such as wearing long sleeves and full-length pants while hiking in the woods or use rubber gloves when handling chemical cleaners or strong detergents (car wash soap, etc.).

Finding out potential allergen triggers is a simple test conducted by a medical professional where known allergens are placed on a small bandage and applied to the skin for a select number of hours. The bandages are removed and the areas that are swollen and raised constitute an allergic reaction.

Genetics can also play a part into the likelihood of experiencing angioedema so consult with immediate family members to get a full medical history on both sides of the family. Once this information is compiled, pass it along to a family doctor in the case of an outbreak.

Conclusion

Angioedema is a more serious version of an allergic reaction that causes only hives alone but it doesn’t have to be a condition that hampers a person’s lifestyle. With minor changes and a higher level of awareness to what could potentially trigger both a hive and angioedema outbreak; people can easily avoid triggers.

If the fluid buildup caused by angioedema feels as if it is in the lungs, stomach, or throat; consult with a medical professional as soon as possible as fluid in these areas have the potential to turn fatal. An emergency department at the local hospital will be equipped with the measures needed to reduce fluid buildup and prevent further occurrences.

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