March 25, 2014 Updated: March 25, 2014 at 7:50 am
Hives are red, itchy bumps on the skin. They often are caused by an allergic reaction that lasts for a few hours or a couple of days. An antihistamine such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine) usually can ease the discomfort.
When hives last longer than six weeks, they enter the realm of mystery. Patients become frustrated by the never-ending itch that seemingly has no cause and no clear cure.
We recently heard from one reader who had a chronic case of hives. Steroid shots, oral prednisone and antihistamines barely were able to control the condition. The nonstop itching was interfering with sleep, and the steroids were causing horrible heartburn.
We shared research on vitamin D-3 as a treatment for chronic hives (Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology online, Feb. 7). The researchers found that 4,000 IU of vitamin D-3 daily reduced symptoms significantly.
Readers responded to this person's dilemma with their own stories. One offered this: "I also had chronic hives and was on steroids, prednisone and Benadryl. My pharmacist told me to stop taking them and to try Zantac morning and night. It worked amazingly well. My hives have been gone now for several years."
Some people eventually discovered that their chronic hives were a response to cholesterol medication. Here is one example: "I read the article from the person with the horrible itching problem. I, too, had severe itching. It turned out to be due to different cholesterol medications I had been taking.
"The slightest touch to my skin made me itch and break out in hives. I even dreaded taking off my socks! I was switched to Crestor and so far have only had minor problems with itching."
Other readers found that changing their laundry habits made a difference. One wrote: "I had a similar experience with hives. Steroids didn't help, but I heard that scented dryer cloths could be a problem. I stopped using them, and that solved the problem."
Another reported: "I suffered from hives and received cortisone shots, but nothing helped permanently. Finally, an emergency-room doctor in Spain said to wear all-cotton clothes and wash them with perfume-free detergent. Following this advice provided instant relief!"
Sometimes hives can be a symptom of something serious. The most distressing story we received was the following: "A close friend of mine had a problem with chronic hives. Finally, one doctor recognized chronic itching as a known symptom of pancreatic cancer and ordered tests that verified it. He said the itching revealed the condition early and allowed prompt surgery that gave my friend five more years of life."
This is a reminder that hives deserve to be taken seriously and treated with respect.
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert.