What is Triggering Your Child’s Hives?

Learn how to treat your child’s hives, which could have been triggered by a food, drug, or recent viral infection.

Has your child ever had hives?

What was the first thing you thought of?

If you’re like most parents, it is likely what your child had recently eaten, thinking that is most likely to be what is causing their allergic reaction.

Hives can be scary, because they can appear suddenly all over your child's body. They are one of those things that typically looks worse than it is though.
Hives can be scary, because they can appear suddenly all over your child’s body. They are one of those things that typically looks worse than it is though. Photo by Sussman et al (CC BY 4.0)

It is important to remember that there are many more things in addition to food allergies that can cause hives in kids though. These include medications, infections, exposure to the sun, and for some kids, even physically stroking their skin, which is called dermographism.

What are Hives?

A hive on your child's lip is much different from swelling inside their mouth and throat.
A hive on your child’s lip is much different from swelling inside their mouth and throat. Photo by Sussman et al (CC BY 4.0)

Hives are a type of allergic or immune system reaction that occurs when something triggers the release of chemicals, including histamine, from cells in a child’s body.

Hives are usually harmless if they are the only symptom your child is having.

Unfortunately, children with hives and more severe symptoms, such as wheezing, difficulty breathing or swallowing, or swelling in their mouth or throat, may have anaphylaxis – a life-threatening allergic reaction. These children need immediate medical attention.

Symptoms of Hives

In addition to their typical appearance as red or pink raised areas on your child’s skin, hives are usually:

  • itchy
  • seen alone or are in groups
  • varied in size, with some being smaller than your child’s finger tip and other’s larger than a half-dollar size. Also, hives can often merge or join to form even larger hives that, for example, can cover half of your child’s abdomen.
  • temporary and come and go over several hours. They often don’t go away completely though. Instead, old hives go away in one part of your child’s body, while new ones continue to appear somewhere else. Any individual hive shouldn’t last more than 24 hours. If it does, then your child may have a similar skin rash, such as erythema multiforme, and not simple hives.

Less commonly, hives can sting, be painful, and can leave bruises on your child’s skin.

Kids with hives may have additional symptoms depending on what is triggering the hives. For example, if a viral infection is causing the hives, then they may have a sore throat, runny nose, and/or cough.

What is Triggering Your Child’s Hives?

Although some things, such as certain foods, commonly cause hives, keep in mind that almost anything can trigger hives.

Common causes of hives can include:

  • foods, especially peanuts, eggs, tree nuts, milk, shellfish, wheat, and soy
  • medications, especially antibiotics like penicillin and sulfa drugs
  • additives in foods or medications, such as the food dye tartrazine (Yellow No. 5)
  • infections, especially viral infections
  • insect bites and stings
  • latex
  • exercise
  • stress
  • exposure to heat, cold, or water, no matter what the temperature is
  • dermatographism, a physical urticaria, in which hives are triggered by stroking the skin, such as by scratching

How do you figure out what is causing your child’s hives?

It can be hard.

To help figure it out, keep a diary of all of your child’s medications and everything he recently eat or drank, shortly before breaking out.

Allergy testing is sometimes necessary to figure out what is causing hives, especially if your child’s hives are not going away or they keep getting hives over and over. Fortunately, most kids don’t need testing for their hives, and unless the trigger is obvious, like when it follows eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or they are on Amoxil for an ear infection, there is a good chance that they won’t get hives again.

Treatments for Hives

Since hives are caused by the chemical histamine, it makes sense that you would treat them with an antihistamine medication, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Other sedating antihistamines that are sometimes used to treat hives include hydroxyzine (Atarax) and cyproheptadine (Periactin).

Non-sedating antihistamines, including Allegra, Claritin, Clarinex, and Zyrtec, are also used to treat hives, expecially hives that last longer than 6 weeks.

Less commonly, a child may need a steroid to treat his episode of hives.

Other treatments, especially for chronic hives, can sometimes include doxepin (Sinequan), an antidepressant that can work as a potent antihistamine, montelukast (Singulair), and medications such as ranitidine (Zantac) or cimetidine (Tagamet), which are more commonly used to treat reflux.

In some cases of persistent hives, your pediatrician might recommend that you give your child multiple medications, for example, both Zyrtec and Allegra, with Zantac!

Of course, the best treatment for hives, whenever possible, is to remove and then avoid whatever has triggering them.

What You Need To Know About Hives

Hives are not considered chronic or long-term until they last for six weeks or longer. Chronic hives are rarely caused by food allergies. In fact, triggers for chronic allergies are only found about 20 percent of the time.

What if no cause is found for your child’s chronic hives? Then your child has idiopathic hives, which should eventually go away.

What else should you know about your child’s hives?

Individual hives are also called welts (not whelps, a common misspelling for welts) or wheals.

It is a common myth that it has to be something ‘new’ that is causing your child’s hives, as it is much more common that your child has had something two, three or more times before it finally triggers hives.

And although an allergic reaction to a food is usually fairly quick, occurring within minutes to hours, it may take days or weeks for an antibiotic to trigger hives in your child. Your child might not even break out until a few weeks after finishing their last dose!

Also keep in mind that a pediatric allergist and/or pediatric dermatologist can often help your pediatrician figure out what is causing your child’s hives.

More on Your Child’s Hives

How To Avoid Peanut Allergies

To prevent peanut allergies, parents of high risk kids are being told to go out of their way to be sure that they actually feed their infants peanut-containing foods!

Infants with eczema are at high risk for developing peanut allergies.
Infants with eczema are at high risk for developing peanut allergies. Photo courtesy of the NIAID.

The worst part of having a severe allergy to peanuts isn’t the high price of EpiPens.

It is that peanut allergies can be deadly, even when you have access to an EpiPen.

And since there is no 100% fool proof way to avoid peanuts and peanut containing foods, doctors have been trying to come up with ways to prevent kids from ever developing peanut allergies.

The first efforts, to avoid peanuts and other high risk foods during pregnancy and early infancy, likely backfired, leading to even more kids with peanut allergies. That’s why recommendations for starting solid foods changed back in 2008, when the American Academy of Pediatrics began to tell parents to no longer delay giving solid foods after age 4 to 6 months and that it wasn’t necessary to delay “the introduction of foods that are considered to be highly allergic, such as fish, eggs, and foods containing peanut protein.”

The latest guidelines are the next evolution of that older advice.

Now, in addition to simply not delaying introducing allergy type foods, as part of a new strategy to prevent peanut allergies, parents of high risk kids are being told to go out of their way to be sure that they actually give their infants peanut-containing foods!

Prevention of Peanut Allergies

Developed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, with 25 professional organizations, federal agencies, and patient advocacy groups, these clinical practice guidelines recommend that parents:

  1. introduce peanut-containing foods into your infant’s diet as early as 4 to 6 months of age if they have severe eczema, egg allergy, or both (strongly consider allergy testing first)
  2. introduce peanut-containing foods into your infant’s diet around 6 months of age if they have mild to moderate eczema
  3. introduce peanut-containing foods into your infant’s diet in an age-appropriate manner with other solid foods if your infant has no eczema or any food allergy

Keep in mind that it is possible that your baby already has a peanut allergy, so discuss your plan to introduce peanut-containing foods with your pediatrician first. But don’t be in such a rush that you make peanut-containing foods your baby’s first food. Offer a cereal, veggie, fruit, or meat first. If tolerated, and you know that your baby is ready for solid food, and with your pediatricians okay, then consider moving to peanut-containing foods.

And although not always necessary, it is possible to do allergy testing even on younger infants. Testing is an especially good idea if your infant has severe eczema or an egg allergy. For these higher risk kids, referral to an allergy specialist might even be a good idea, where infants can start peanut containing foods in their office (supervised feeding) or as part of a graded oral challenge. Your pediatrician might also consider supervised feeding for your higher risk child who is not allergic to peanuts.

Peanut-Containing Baby Food Recipes

So how do you give a 4 or 6 month old peanut-containing foods?

It’s not like Gerber has any 1st or 2nd foods with peanuts – at least not yet…

So for now, you can:

  • add 2 to 3 tablespoons of hot water to 2 teaspoons of thinned, smooth peanut butter. Stir until the peanut butter dissolves and is well blended. You can feed it to your baby after it has cooled.
  • mix 2 to 3 tablespoons of a fruit or veggie that your baby is already tolerating in 2 teaspoons of thinned, smooth peanut butter.
  • mix 2 to 3 tablespoons of a fruit or veggie that your baby is already tolerating in 2 teaspoons of peanut flour or peanut butter powder.

Each of these recipes will provide your baby with about 2g of peanut protein. Since the goal is to give your child about 6 to 7g a week, you should offer them three separate times.

During the first feeding, it is important to only “offer your infant a small part of the peanut serving on the tip of the spoon,” and then wait for at least 10 minutes to make sure there are no signs of an allergic reaction, such as hives, face swelling, trouble breathing, or vomiting, etc.

Of course, because of the risk of choking, you should not give infants or toddlers whole peanuts or chunks of peanut butter.

More Information on Preventing Peanut Allergies