Q.Yikes! How can it be that I’ve gotten hives for the first time in my life, and I’m 19? I’m almost finished with my first college year. Over the weekend, I was at a party and drank for the first time (Honest. I don’t really party much). At the party, I started feeling really hot and itchy. My friends said my face was all swollen and puffy. When I looked in the mirror, I looked like I’d been mugged. One of my friends took me to the student health services, and they gave me some kind of IV and I slept like forever. When I woke, I felt fine. Now I’m worried. School is almost over, and I’ll be home for the summer. When I was home over Christmas break, my parents acted like I was still in high school. I really resent that. Do I need to tell them about this incident? Part of me doesn’t want to admit I was drinking. Part of me is frightened it will happen again. You always listened to my problems in high school. Any thoughts?
Mary Jo’s response: Thanks for writing and remembering. Do you recall me telling you “life exists after high school”? I’m glad you’re discovering independence. Let’s talk.
I see two questions behind your question. The first deals with hives; we can easily discuss facts about allergic reactions. The second deals with a very common phenomena – returning home from an environment where a young person is “in charge” – and requires communication.
Whether the homecoming is after college, employment in another area, or military service, most young people and parents face an adjustment. Try to have empathy for your parents’ experience. When you were out of sight, they had no idea if you returned to your dorm late, ate a decent meal or slept well. When you return home, their parenting kicks in. Often they’re happy to have you home, but their enthusiasm may feel like overprotection. Simply talk with them. Share your concerns. Assure them of your ability to make good choices. Discuss their rules with respect.
Should you tell them about your incident? I think they need to be aware of a possible allergy and prepare for another bout of hives. Since you don’t know for certain what caused the hives at the party, and since you don’t appear to be struggling with an addiction to alcohol, I don’t know how relevant your drinking is to your conversation. On the other hand, underage drinking is illegal. Most parents are realistic about college drinking. Sharing the situation might help them support you as you make healthy choices in the future.
About those hives. Yes, it’s possible to develop an allergy after childhood. Hives are also known as urticaria. They are common and are defined as an outbreak of raised, red, often itchy patches of skin (called “wheals”) that appear suddenly and disappear without marks. Hives can appear all over the body, can range in size from small dots like the tip of a pencil to large patches the size of a dinner plate. They can last for hours or even several days.
Hives are a physical response to histamine. Histamine is a chemical released from special cells along the skin’s blood vessels. Hives are usually allergic reactions to a substance the body recognizes as a dangerous intruder; the body prepares an immune response to the “invader.” Hives typically develop within minutes of exposure to the substance. Common allergic triggers are:
• New soaps or lotions
• Animal hair
• Tight clothing
• Anxiety or stress
• Insect stings or bites
• Contact with chemicals
It may be difficult to determine the exact cause of hives. I suggest an appointment with your health care provider. You may want to see an allergist to discover any allergy triggers. A doctor can perform blood/allergy tests and recommend medications to help relieve symptoms. If you know your body’s triggers, you can try to avoid them. An allergic reaction might begin with something simple like hives but progress to a more serious, even life-threatening situation. An anaphylactic reaction may involve light-headedness or dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, difficulty breathing or swallowing, or even a loss of consciousness.
If hives happen again, here are some suggestions to soothe your skin:
• Use cold baths or cold pack (not hot)
• Wear loose-fitting clothing
• Stay calm and avoid strenuous activities
As we grow older, our bodies change. Hives are not uncommon; discovering our body’s reactions is wise. Good luck.