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Definition:

Angioedema is a swelling, similar to hives, but the swelling is beneath the skin rather than on the surface. The hives are called welts. It is also possible to have angioedema without hives.

See also: Hereditary angioedema



Alternative Names:

Angioneurotic edema; Welts



Causes, incidence, and risk factors:

Angioedema may be caused by an allergic reaction. During the reaction, histamine and other chemicals are released into the bloodstream. The body releases histamine when the immune system detects a foreign substance called an allergen .

Often the cause of angioedema is never found.

The following items may cause angioedema.

  • Animal dander (scales of shed skin)
  • Medications (drug allergy), such as antibiotics (penicillin and sulfa drugs) and blood pressure medicines (ACE inhibitors)
  • Exposure to water, sunlight, cold or heat
  • Foods (such as berries, shellfish, fish, nuts, eggs, milk, and others)
  • Insect bites
  • Pollen

Hives and angioedema may also occur after infections or with other illness (including autoimmune disorders such as lupus and leukemia and lymphoma).

A form of angioedema runs in families and has different triggers, complications, and treatments. This is called hereditary angioedema , and it is not discussed here.



Symptoms:

The main symptom is the sudden development of swelling. You may also develop welts.

The welts usually occur around the eyes and lips. They may also be found on the hands, feet, and throat. They may form a line or be more spread out.

The welts are painful and may be itchy. They turn pale and swell if irritated.

Other symptoms may include:



Signs and tests:

The doctor will look at your skin and ask you if you have been exposed to any irritating substances. A physical exam might reveal abnormal sounds (stridor ) when you breathe in if the throat is affected.

Rarely, the health care provider may perform allergy testing .



Treatment:

Mild symptoms may not need treatment. Moderate to severe symptoms may need treatment. Breathing difficulty is an emergency condition.

Cool compresses or soaks can provide pain relief.

Medications used to treat angioedema include:

  • Antihistamines
  • Anti-inflammatory medicines (corticosteroids)
  • Cimetidine (Tagamet)
  • Epinephrine
  • Terbutaline (a bronchodilator)

If the person has trouble breathing, seek immediate medical help.

See: Breathing difficulties - first aid

At the hospital, a tube may be placed in the throat to keep the airway open.



Support Groups:



Expectations (prognosis):

Angioedema that does not affect the breathing may be uncomfortable, but is usually harmless and goes away in a few days.



Complications:

Calling your health care provider:

Call your health care provider if:

  • Angioedema does not respond to treatment
  • It is severe
  • You have never had angioedema before

Go to the emergency room or call the local emergency number (such as 911) if you have:

  • Abnormal breathing sounds (stridor)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fainting
  • Wheezing


Prevention:

To prevent angioedema from coming back:

  • Avoid irritating the affected area.
  • Avoid temperature extremes.
  • Stay away from known allergens.

Never take medications that are not prescribed for you.



References:

Kaplan AP. Angioedema. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005;53(3):373-388.

Habif TP. Clinical Dermatology. 4th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2004:129.

Marx J. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 6th ed. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2006:1834-1835.

Temiño VM, Peebles RS Jr. The spectrum and treatment of angioedema. Am J Med. 2008;121:282-286.




Review Date: 4/28/2008
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III., MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Stuart I. Henochowicz, MD, FACP, Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine, Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Rheumatology, Georgetown University Medical School. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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