An outbreak of hives can be one of those conditions that is particularly confusing. They seem to come and go for no good reason, they can be supremely itchy, and often the underlying cause is never known.
When my son was a younger, he had a run in with hives that was both puzzling and scary. He went through a period of time during which very red and itchy hives would show up just about anywhere on his body. They usually occurred at bed time, making it impossible for him to sleep. When we took him to the doctor, the doctor was pretty much clueless as to what was causing them. As parents, we also felt clueless as to how to help (at the time), other than to give him an antihistamine when things got really bad.
Hives, also know as urticaria, are associated with an allergic reaction, and can occur over a long period of time (chronic—more than six to eight weeks), or they can be acute, which means they’re of short duration (less than six to eight weeks). Hives occur because histamine is released from your cells, causing raised flat wheals that can range in size from smaller than a dime to that of a dinner plate.
In rare instances, an allergic reaction can cause severe symptoms, called anaphylaxis. In those cases, the histamine reaction causes your blood vessels to dilate, making your blood pressure drop. At the same time, the reaction may cause asthma-like symptoms that constrict the airways in your lungs and throat. These cases are considered to be life threatening and should be treated as an emergency by getting medical help—fast.
In Chinese medicine, hives, or urticaria, are considered to be a wind rash. Wind is a pathogen in which there is movement where there should be none. The nature of hives is very wind-like. They come and go, move around your body, and change size rapidly.
In addition to being associated with wind, in Chinese medicine hives can be either warm or cold. Hives that are very red, aggravated by heat, and feel warm to the touch are associated with heat. In contrast, hives that are pale, worse in the cold weather and are relieved with the application of heat are considered to be cold.
In Chinese medicine hives are almost always associated with a weak exterior. Your body is surrounded by a “protective bubble”, which is your exterior and which acts a little like immunity. It protects you from things like colds, flu, and allergies. When your protective bubble is weak, you become more prone to catching the cold du jour, as well as suffering from conditions that affect your exterior—most notably your skin.
In Western medicine, the treatment for hives is antihistamines. However, your practitioner of Chinese medicine may combine body acupuncture with Chinese herbs and/or ear acupuncture to resolve your hives. One standard prescription includes the points of Sp10, Sp6, LI11, and St36. Depending on whether your hives are a combination of wind and heat or wind and cold, your practitioner will likely choose additional points to relieve your specific symptoms.
A few things you can try to temporarily relieve the itching associated with hives includes:
- Try a cold compress or cool bath. The application of cold shrinks the blood vessels and decreases the amount of histamine being released. This will work even if you have a Chinese medicine diagnosis of cold wind rash. However, if cold is a trigger for your hives, this tip won’t work for you.
- Bathe in colloidal oatmeal. I like Aveeno products, which are found in most drug stores. A cool to lukewarm bath with oatmeal mixed in can also help relieve your itching.
- Calm down with tea. In many cases, episodes of hives are brought on or aggravated by stressful situations. So sit down and have a cup of herbal tea. Try chrysanthemum, chamomile, peppermint, or passion flower.
- Get topical. Try some calamine lotion, milk of magnesia (it’s alkaline and should help the itch), or witch hazel. You can chill any of these in the refrigerator for a cooling effect.
- Avoid anything, if known, that might be triggering your allergic reaction. For example, certain foods, temperature changes, and even exercise can bring on a bout of itching for some people.
In my son’s case, his hives were a combination of wind and heat. He has always run hot in general, and when we put him to bed for the night, he would get warmer, triggering his hives. After about six weeks of cooling off his nighttime itching, the hives finally went away and haven’t been seen since.