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What are the Most Common Causes of Hives in Adults?

Alex Tree
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Allergies, exercise, and detergents are common causes of hives in adults. In addition, hives are idiopathic, meaning that the cause of some cases is unknown. Food and medication allergies are very common and likely the culprit if the adult recently tried a new medication or food. Hives due to exercise is less common than food- or medication-induced hives, but still occurs in many adults. Hives may also caused by clothing that is too tight, too loose, or washed in a detergent that irritates the person’s skin.

Food allergies are an especially common cause of hives in adults. If a person develops hives and remembers trying a new food recently, he or she is likely experiencing an allergic reaction. Shellfish, nuts, and gluten are some things people are frequently found to be allergic to. To prevent another potentially worse breakout of hives, the food should be avoided in the future.

In addition to food allergies, some drugs might cause an allergic hive reaction in adults. Hives are listed as a possible side effect in many over-the-counter and prescription medications. These reactions can range from mild to severe, but normally diminish within 24 hours. If they are painful and last longer than 24 hours, it is generally recommended to see a doctor.

Even an activity that is often considered harmless, like exercise, can cause hives in adults. Due to a condition called exercise-induced urticaria, some adults get hives, in addition to other negative symptoms, as a result of exercising. This is a dangerous condition and, if it is suspected, it is recommended the person see a doctor. Exercise does not have to be the direct trigger, however. For example, some adults are afflicted with hives as an allergic response to sweat, which can be caused by exercise.

At times, even clothing can result in hives in adults. Clothing can chafe or cause skin irritation by being too tight or too loose. Another reason clothing can cause irritation resulting in hives is due to an allergic reaction to the detergent that was used to wash the clothing. If this is the case, the situation can often be fixed by soaking the offending clothing in an ammonia-based solution and switching to a type of detergent thought to be less likely to irritate the skin. It can often be difficult to discover exactly what is causing hives in adults, but these are a few potential issues that can be ruled out without medical treatment.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Alex Tree
By Alex Tree
Andrew McDowell is a talented writer and The Health Board contributor. His unique perspective and ability to communicate complex ideas in an accessible manner make him a valuable asset to the team, as he crafts content that both informs and engages readers.
Discussion Comments
By clintflint — On Apr 07, 2013

Unfortunately, sometimes hives just don't seem to have a cause. It might be stress related, but they will never get more specific than that. And sometimes they just seem to happen, without any explanation at all.

When you think about how complex our daily lives are these days, and how many chemicals we come into contact with without realizing it (think about cleaning chemicals, chemicals in water, chemicals in road words, chemicals in the air) it's no wonder that such a large percentage of hives end up without a clear cause.

And, unfortunately there aren't any surefire treatments for hives if you don't know what's causing them.

By Ana1234 — On Apr 06, 2013

@browncoat - Another good thing to do, as soon as you figure out that some detergent allergy in particular is causing hives, is to just compare it to something that you know doesn't cause you hives and try to see what the difference is. Remember that it might be something that is used in greater quantities in one, rather than just something that's missing.

You should do the same thing with food. Knowing you break out into hives when you have bread is not enough. That might be a gluten allergy, it might be a wheat allergy, it might be an egg allergy or several other kinds.

By browncoat — On Apr 05, 2013

If you manage to figure out that you're been getting hives from a particular detergent, make sure you write down not only what kind of detergent it is, but also what it has in it.

I figured out a few years ago that I was allergic to a certain kind of clothes washing powder and that it made me feel really itchy and eventually, if I didn't change it, I started to get hives as well.

But, I didn't take note of the ingredients. And I've noticed recently that they have boxes saying "all new formula" so now, if I start getting the reaction again from something else, I might not be able to figure out exactly what is causing it by comparing the two ingredient lists.

Alex Tree
Alex Tree
Andrew McDowell is a talented writer and The Health Board contributor. His unique perspective and ability to communicate complex ideas in an accessible manner make him a valuable asset to the team, as he crafts content that both informs and engages readers.
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