Hives is a skin reaction, usually either to an allergen or a condition present in the environment. Occasionally, individuals will develop hives for no discernible reason, but the appearance is similar to responses to known stimuli. The most telltale of the symptoms of hives is the appearance of red bumps on the skin. The bumps typically are painless, but some patients experience itching; in rare cases, the bumps may be accompanied by a burning sensation as well.
Patches on the skin that develop as one of the main symptoms of hives can be either white or red. Also called wheals, these patches can cover a large area of skin or be targeted to a specific area, such as the hands or chest. Usually these patches are made up of swollen bumps, and these individual bumps can also form in any size. Alternately, the discolorations on the skin can be in the form of plaques, which have the same coloring but lack the swelling of wheals.
Over the course of an outbreak, these swollen patches that are the main symptom of hives can appear to move. Wheals and swollen bumps can appear and disappear quickly, sometimes within a matter of hours. When one set disappears, another can reappear if the stimulus for the hives is still causing the reaction. This can be more noticeable overnight, as an individual can go to sleep with hives in one area and wake up with them in another.
Some individuals may notice an itching sensation on the afflicted skin. Sometimes a topical skin cream can provide relief from this symptom. For many, though, these wheals are relatively painless, save for some discomfort that goes along with stretched, tight-feeling skin. This can occur when the hives are severe and may also be managed with skin cream or lotion. Although it is rare, some patients may develop the sensation of burning under the skin in association with the main symptoms of hives.
Many cases of hives are short-lived, and can disappear as soon as a day after they develop. If an individual's hives disappear within six weeks of developing, these are called acute hives. Those that last longer are called chronic hives and can be present for years, with the symptoms of hives always present on the skin.
Similar to hives is a condition called angioedema. It manifests for some of the same reasons, but has a reaction that is slightly different from the symptoms of hives. In hives, the wheals appear on the surface of the skin, and the swelling creates distinctive raised patches. In angioedema, the swelling happens underneath the skin while the surface remains smooth. Both can manifest alongside each other, and antihistamines can provide relief from the symptoms of both.