When Your Kid Inexplicably Breaks Out In Hives: It's Common, But Stressful

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
princessdlaf / iStock

The first time it happened, he was just a baby, 8 months old or so. He had a couple of flat red bumps on his chunky little legs. We thought they were mosquito bites at first. Within an hour or two, the bumps disappeared, and then a new crop appeared on his arm. All the while, he was playing and laughing — no other symptoms. But when more popped up all over his sweet face, I decided it was time to take him to the doctor.

I will admit that I am a bit of a hypochondriac. I mean, I never was before I had kids, but if anything is out of the ordinary with one of my wee ones, my first instinct is, “Okay, they’ve got some kind of rare disease that will surely kill them.” And yes, even though my baby was acting perfectly normal (he didn’t even seem itchy), I feared the worst.

The doctor looked him over, diagnosed him with hives, and sent us home. “But what are they from?” I asked. “Could be a virus, could be something he ate. It’s hard to say,” he replied.

Hard to say? Aren’t y’all the expert on these things?

We never really did get to the bottom of that case (and it dragged on for two whole weeks, which the doctor explained was totally normal). Turns out, though, this is often the diagnosis you get when your kid has a case of the hives, with no other accompanying symptoms of concern.

The second time it happened, this same kid was 4 years old. We were painting Easter Eggs, and all of a sudden, his neck got all red, and he started scratching. A few minutes later, I looked, and the very tops of his shoulders were red too. Could it be a sunburn? After all, it had been unseasonably warm and sunny for early April, and we’d been playing outside.

Within the hour, the poor kid was covered head to toe in welts, and I suspected hives right off the bat. This time, they were bothering him, though, and we were visiting family later in the day. I wanted to find out what we should give him to make him more comfortable, and make sure he would not infect anyone else in case it was something other than hives (hives in and of themselves are not contagious).

So we whisked his itchy little self to the doctor. It indeed was hives, and this time we kinda, sorta had a cause: the antibiotic he’d been taking for the past week for a double ear infection, and a possible allergic reaction to it. The doctor still would not say for sure that that was the cause of the hives (“It’s really hard to know for sure with hives,” she said), but after checking to see that his ears were clear, she said we should stop the antibiotics and that she’d make a note in her chart that our son should not be given those antibiotics again.

I felt a lot less panicked about the hives this time: I knew what they were, how to treat them (Benadryl worked wonders), and that they weren’t serious.

But all that changed the following night when his allergic reaction (or whatever the heck it was) took a freaky turn. All of a sudden, my son said his knee and foot hurt. Then he said his hand hurt so much, he couldn’t hold his spoon. I looked, and his hand, foot, and knee were flaming red with giant hives and a bit swollen. I realized it was time for his next dose of Benadryl, and I figured that’s why everything was flaring up.

But a few minutes later, he told us he couldn’t walk and started stumbling around the house, whimpering and saying that everything hurt. Let me tell you, whatever the cause, when it appears that your baby suddenly cannot walk and seems to be in excruciating pain, you pretty much go into full panic modewhich I did.

As I dialed the number for the doctor’s office (my son’s other vital signs were fine, so I decided not to call 911), I started to breathe and remind myself that this was probably part of the allergic reaction. I remembered reading that hives are caused by an excess of histamine in your body, and that swelling and inflammation often go with it. I just didn’t think it would render my otherwise healthy child suddenly incapable of walking (have I fully expressed how terrifying this was?).

I got my favorite doctor on the phone, and she patiently walked me through a whole host of questions. She wanted to make sure it wasn’t a more serious kind of reaction, and then she asked if he had a fever, was eating, breathing normally, etc.

Her conclusion? He was fine, and it sounded like the swelling and pain was edema from the histamine allergic reaction. I should give him his Benadryl dose, some Motrin, and take him in the next day if the swelling wasn’t better.

Once the meds kicked in, my son was much more comfortable and slept through the night without a peep. By the morning, he was 100%. The swelling and pain had died down, and he was his usual literally-bouncing-off-the-walls self.

Within the week, the hives were gone (and then, of course, he caught a stomach virus because I am the luckiest mother in the world).

So, yeah, sometimes your kid suddenly and inexplicably gets the hives. And if you totally flip out about it like I do, I feel you. They’re freaky, sudden, ugly, itchy, and endless. And let’s not forget the potential swelling or the fact that no one seems to know what on earth causes them.

Because I have spent too much time down the rabbit hole of Google (warning: don’t go into Facebook parenting groups unless you want to see a million pictures of other kids’ horrible rashes as well as terrifying rash/illness stories), learning everything there is to know about childhood hives, I will share with you a few main points to keep in mind, to help ease your mind if you so happen to be blessed with them too. (List items compiled with a little help from Seattle Children’s Hospital):

1. The majority of hives are caused by viral infections (this is what I believe was the cause when my son was an infant because he’d just had a cold). Other common causes include bacterial infections, bee stings, food allergies, and reactions to medicine. Hives from contact with contaminants on the skin (like plants and detergents) are usually localized to the area where the contact was made, not widespread. About 30% of hives have no known cause.

2. Hives vary in size from just a few centimeters to several inches across the chest. They often look like mosquito bites, usually itch, and change location throughout the course of the reaction. My doctor told me it can take a week to 10 days for the reaction to completely die down!

3. Most cases of hives are not life-threatening. If your child were having a life-threatening allergic reaction, you would see signs pretty much right away, within 30 minutes, or two hours at most. Signs of a serious, anaphylactic reaction include difficulty swallowing or breathing. If your child has any of these signs, dial 911 ASAP.

Does all that make you feel any better? Honestly, most of what happens is your kid looks ridiculous, you lose it wondering WTF is wrong, and there’s probably a fair amount of itching.

Of course, if you have any concerns whatsoever, call your doctor, 911, or speed over to the ER. As innocuous as things like this usually are, I don’t believe anyone can be too cautious when it comes to the health of our precious little ones.

This article was originally published on