What is angioedema?
Angioedema is a localized tissue swelling similar to hives in which areas of raised, itchy skin appear. However, in contrast to hives, which appear on the surface of the skin, angioedema affects deeper layers of the skin and other organs (mouth, airways, intestinal tract, etc.). Angioedema may occur anywhere, but most commonly affects the skin around the eyes and around and in the mouth.
Angioedema is generally a result of an allergic reaction, such as those due to food or medication allergies. Rarely, it can be hereditary. Angioedema may develop after an infection or in association with a chronic disease such as lupus or certain cancers. Since it is typically due to an allergic reaction, anyone can experience angioedema. The severity of angioedema is variable. Mild cases may not require medical treatment, but severe cases can lead to life-threatening consequences such as difficulty breathing.
Treatments for angioedema can include steroids, antihistamines, epinephrine and other medications. In life-threatening cases, respiratory support, such as a breathing machine, may be necessary. In milder cases that do not compromise breathing, angioedema is not usually a serious condition and resolves on its own within a few days.
While generally not a serious condition, angioedema can sometimes be life threatening. See k immediate medical care (call 911) if angioedema becomes severe and begins to cause swelling in the area of your throat or mouth or you experience dizziness or fainting, difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing, or if you experience chest pain or pressure.
If you experience persistent angioedema (more than several days), are in pain, or your angioedema causes you concern, s eek prompt medical care.
What are the symptoms of angioedema?
Symptoms of angioedema generally include skin symptoms that resolve within several days. However, severe angioedema can be persistent and lead to more severe symptoms.
Common skin symptoms associated with angioedema
You will likely experience angioedema symptoms daily during the course of your condition. At times any of these symptoms can be severe:
- Hives (urticaria)
- Itchy skin
- Pain over the affected area
- Redness, warmth or swelling of the skin
- Sensitivity to touch in the affected area
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, angioedema can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms:
What causes angioedema?
Angioedema is most frequently caused by an allergic reaction. As part of that reaction, your body will release histamine, a chemical that causes swelling. Alternatively, your angioedema may be hereditary and caused by gene mutations. In some cases, the cause of angioedema may not be found.
Common causes of angioedema
Nonhereditary angioedema may be caused by a variety of conditions or events including:
- Allergies, including those to dander, foods (for example, nuts and shellfish), medications (for example, ACE inhibitors or penicillin), pollen, and bites or stings
- Strenuous prolonged exercise
Less common causes of angioedema
Nonhereditary angioedema is less frequently caused by more serious underlying conditions or diseases including:
- Bacterial or viral infections leading to diseases such as hepatitis
- Cancer, such as lymphoma or leukemia
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (disorder in which the body attacks its own healthy cells and tissues)
- Thyroid conditions
A number of factors increase the risk of developing angioedema. Not all people with risk factors will get angioedema. Risk factors for angioedema include:
- Personal or family history of angioedema
- Underlying disorder such as lupus, lymphoma, or thyroid disease
Reducing your risk of angioedema
Angioedema is most frequently the result of an allergic reaction. Therefore, avoiding known allergens is the best way to reduce your risk of developing angioedema.
How is angioedema treated?
Angioedema is typically not a serious condition and will usually resolve on its own without treatment. If severe enough to cause breathing difficulties, hospitalization and respiratory support are necessary.
Treatment options for angioedema
Treatment options for angioedema include:
Administration of antihistamines (either over-the-counter or prescription, depending on the severity of your angioedema)
Administration of corticosteroids to decrease inflammation
Administration of epinephrine (adrenaline) for severe reactions
Application of a cool, wet cloth to the affected areas
Long-term treatment for angioedema
Depending on the specific cause of your angioedema, you may be able to control the frequency and severity of your angioedema episodes by participating in long-term treatment plans including:
Going through desensitization therapy, which involves taking increasing doses of medication
Taking a nightly low dose of an antihistamine
Although it may be a mild condition, it is possible for persistent or severe angioedema to lead to severe and life-threatening complications. Additionally, hereditary angioedema typically produces more severe episodes than allergic angioedema, which may also lead to complications. Therefore, it is important for you to seek medical consultation if your angioedema is persistent or severe in order to identify the underlying cause. Once the underlying cause is determined, you can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of angioedema include:
Anaphylaxis (life-threatening allergic reaction)
Unconsciousness and coma