Winter weather is often unkind to our skin for more reasons than one. Going back and forth between chilly outdoor conditions and warm, dry interiors can be a recipe for irritation. Moreover, bundling up to combat the cold can suffocate your skin. The air is typically dry in winter too, removing important moisture from your skin. All of these factors can have different results for different people -- some suffer from winter eczema, psoriasis, acne, flaking skin, rashes, etc. The cold season can even become the primary culprit in a hives (urticaria) outbreak for some individuals. Let’s explore what causes hives in the winter and what you can do to prevent these annoying and sometimes painful welts from forming.
Hives can appear for several reasons. These raised, itchy welts can be acute or chronic and be triggered by allergic responses to food, medicine, or other materials, infections, diseases, and physical responses to stimuli such as sunlight, pressure, friction, and cold. Indeed, cold urticaria is a category all its own and perhaps the most common form of physical hives. “Essential” or “acquired” cold urticaria occurs some time after one has been exposed to cold conditions -- the onset of hives in this case can range from about five minutes to several hours after exposure. These hives often occur as a result of the skin warming itself after being out in the cold and usually only last about half an hour before diminishing on their own. “Reflex” cold urticaria is another version of this type of hives that occurs when one’s body temperature suddenly drops from a localized instance of cold (e.g., ice pack application).
While cold air is the main winter-related factor that causes hives, some individuals may experience cold urticaria due to an underlying condition, often related to their immune system. For instance, secondary cold urticaria is connected to viral infections that cause blood disorders (like mononucleosis). Other types of cold urticaria occur due to an autoimmune disorder, wherein the body attacks healthy cells as a response to what it deems a foreign invasion; hives are often a symptom of such a malfunction. Indeed, there are many diseases that cause hives. The cold, dry conditions found during winter can expose people to these diseases and/or exacerbate their related symptoms.
While stress isn’t considered a “cause” of hives, hives can certainly be triggered and exacerbated when the mind and body undergo significant stress. Indeed, research indicates that stress-related hives make up nearly half of hives outbreaks. Mental stress can change your hormone levels and create bodily inflammation, which in turn may worsen a hives episode. As it turns out, winter tends to be the most stressful time of year for many people. Hazardous weather conditions combined with holiday gatherings, minimal sunshine, short days, and other seasonal woes can undoubtedly make for nerve-racking situations. In this way, your mental state during winter may be a major contributing factor to your hives.
Cold exposure, disease, and stress aren’t the only reasons you might experience hives during winter. Taking long, hot showers to stay warm can dry out and irritate your skin, triggering hives. Likewise, there may be certain foods you eat during winter that happen to trigger an allergic response. Also, if you like to stay active rather than hibernate when winter rolls around, the friction and sweat involved in exercise can cause hives, too.
As you can see, there’s no shortage of factors that can induce hives during winter. Fortunately, most cases of hives clear up quickly and without intervention. Plus, you can take several steps to prevent and treat hives when things get cold. Some prevention methods include taking an over-the-counter or prescribed antihistamine prior to getting out in the cold, shielding your skin from sudden temperature changes, avoiding extremely cold beverages and goods, keeping an EpiPen with you if instructed by your doctor, and more. In most cases, antihistamines provide the best treatment for hives, though different treatments may be necessary if the root cause is an underlying disease.