What is Urticaria?

Urticaria is a common disorder. It can occur at any age, from infancy to old age. Twenty-five percent of all people are affected by it once in their lives. In most cases, it is acute. According to conservative estimates, 1.0% of the European population currently suffers from chronic urticaria. Unlike in children, in whom no gender-specific incidence of urticaria (hives) could be detected to date, urticaria in adults occurs more commonly in women. With regard to chronic urticaria, the ratio is about 2:1. Persons between the ages of 30 and 50 are often affected. Among persons 70 years of age or older, it occurs relatively rarely. In contrast, hives in newborns, which usually last only a few days, are not uncommon.

Urticaria is characterized by the sudden onset of itchy wheals and/or angioedema. The skin of the entire body or only a portion may be affected. The wheals may occur only in response to certain stimuli (e.g. cold, pressure, or sunlight) or spontaneously, i.e., apparently for no particular reason.

A wheal has three typical characteristics:

  • a superficial swelling of the skin of different sizes, almost always surrounded by a redness
  • itching or burning
  • volatility – the appearance of the skin usually returns to normal within 1-24 hours.


In their appearance, these bumps resemble the skin swelling induced by the stinging hairs of nettle (Lat. Urtica dioica). The affected area of the skin swells and is initially red and later paler red to white in the center and red all around. The wheals seem to persist sometimes or to “migrate”. This impression arises from the fact that the individual wheal indeed disappears, but right next to it there is a new one. Not infrequently there is a deep swelling of the skin—so-called angioedema—in addition to hives (sometimes without hives).

Urticaria is one of the most common diseases of the skin. It is also known under the name of hives or nettle rash. Approximately one in four people gets urticaria in the course of her or his life. Most of these episodes last only a few days or weeks and are unproblematic. This is called acute urticaria. Much more difficult (to endure and to treat) are those cases that last for several months or years (sometimes decades). The name derives from the stinging nettle (Lat. Urticaria dioica or Urticaria urens, urere = burn) – doubtless because the skin looks the same in a case of hives as if one had been “burned” by stinging nettles.