What are hives?

The body's immune system is designed to produce various factors to fight foreign substances, including bacteria and viruses that the immune system perceives as threatening. An allergic response occurs when the body's immune system over-responds, or is hypersensitive to particles known as allergens. Common allergens include plant pollens, molds, dust mites, animal dander, industrial chemicals, food, medicines and insect venom. More than 10% of people get hives.

Important components of the immune system are the antibodies produced by lymph tissue. A key player in the allergic response is the antibody known as immunoglobulin E (IgE). IgE is overproduced in certain people, usually those with inherited susceptibility.

During an allergic attack, these antibodies attach to cells known as mast cells, which are generally concentrated in the lungs, skin and mucous membranes. Once IgE binds to mast cells, these cells are programmed to release a number of chemicals. One of these chemicals, histamine, opens the blood vessels and causes skin redness and swollen membranes. Histamine causes many of the symptoms associated with allergies. Hives are a common allergic reaction involving the skin.

What causes hives?

Widespread hives are an allergic reaction to food, medicine, viral infection, insect bite or environmental exposures. Often the cause cannot be determined. Hives localized to just one part of the body are usually due to skin contact with plants, pollen, food or pet saliva. Hives are not contagious.

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What are the symptoms?

Common symptoms of hives include:

  • Very itchy rash
  • Raised pink lesions with pale centers, ranging in size from ½ inch to several inches wide
  • Variable shapes
  • Rapid and repeated change in location, size and shape

Seek emergency care immediately if breathing or swallowing becomes difficult or you start feeling ill.

How long do symptoms last?

The hives generally come and go for 3 to 4 days and then mysteriously disappear.

Brown students should call Health Services at 401.863-3953 during regular hours or come in to see a medical provider if:

  • Symptoms are worse
  • If most of the itch is not relieved after you have been taking an antihistamine for 24 hours.
  • The hives last for more than 1 week.
  • You have other concerns or questions.

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How are they treated?

The best drug for widespread hives is an antihistamine. It may not cure the hives, but it will reduce their number and relieve itching. Benadryl or its generic equivalent is available without a prescription. It comes in both liquid and tablet form. Benadryl may cause drowsiness, so do not drive while taking it. Continue taking your antihistamine for a day or 2 until you are sure the hives are completely gone. Your medical provider can prescribe a non-sedating antihistamine if necessary.

Can hives be prevented?

Avoid anything you think may have caused the hives. If you have recently started a new medication, discontinue it if possible, until you have called Health Services at 401.863-3953 for advice. For hives triggered by pollen or animal contact, take a cool shower or bath. Hot showers, vigorous toweling, exercise, tight clothing or any other factors that stimulate or inflame your skin may make symptoms worse. For localized hives, wash the allergic substance off the skin with soap and water. Localized hives usually disappear in a few hours so Benadryl is often not needed.

Can I make an appointment at Health Services?

If you are a Brown student and you are concerned about hives, you can make a confidential appointment at Health Services by calling 401.863-3953.  Health Services provides a range of services including general health care, inpatient services and emergency medical care. You can request a medical provider by gender or by name. We are located at 13 Brown Street on the corner of Brown and Charlesfield Streets.

Links you can use

To learn more about hives, you can visit


American Academy of Dermatology

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Disclaimer: BWell Health Promotion is part of Health Services at Brown University. Health Promotion maintains this site as a resource for Brown students. This site is not intended to replace consultation with your medical providers. No site can replace real conversation. Health Promotion offers no endorsement of and assumes no liability for the currency, accuracy, or availability of the information on the sites we link to or the care provided by the resources listed. Health Services staff are available to treat and give medical advice to Brown University students only. If you are not a Brown student, but are in need of medical assistance please call your own health care provider or in case of an emergency, dial 911. Please contact us if you have comments, questions or suggestions.