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Author: Natalie Allen, Medical Student, University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand. DermNet NZ Editor in Chief: Adjunct A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand. Copy edited by Gus Mitchell/Maria McGivern. April 2019.
A weal is a superficial swelling, usually pale or skin-coloured. It is often surrounded by an area of erythema and can last from a few minutes to 24 hours. Children will usually complain of itch and sometimes of a burning sensation.
Angioedema is a deeper swelling from within the skin or mucous membranes. It usually looks red and puffy. The most common areas for angioedema in children are the lips, tongue, and eyelids.
Urticaria in children
Urticaria in children can be either acute (often gone within hours to days) or chronic (lasting longer than 6 weeks). In children, acute urticaria is much more common than chronic urticaria. About 40% of children with acute urticaria also have angioedema .
Chronic urticaria can be spontaneous (when weals occur without any specific trigger) or inducible (when weals occurs without any specific trigger).
Approximately 15% of all children under 10 years old will have at least one episode of acute urticaria. The risk is slightly higher for girls than for boys. However, if a child is atopic (has asthma, dermatitis, and allergies), this risk is around 20% .
Weals are caused by a number of chemical mediators, such as histamine and cytokines, which are released from inflammatory cells, including mast cells. The mediators result in the dilatation of blood vessels and leakage of fluid into surrounding tissues. This causes the redness and swelling noted in urticaria.
Triggers of acute spontaneous urticaria can include:
There is no obvious trigger in approximately 50% of cases of acute urticaria. This may be called ‘idiopathic’ urticaria .
Chronic urticaria is usually caused by autoimmunity or a chronic underlying infection. It is rare in children .
Inducible urticaria is caused by a direct stimulus, such as dermographism, delayed pressure, cold, heat, sunlight, vibration, or exercise. It is linked with atopy and chronic urticaria, but the aetiology is not fully understood .
Urticarial weals may appear on any part of the body and are often very itchy. They can vary in size from the size of a pinpoint to several centimetres in diameter. They are either white or red and can be either localised or widespread. Weals change shape and size and each one lasts from a few minutes to several hours.
Angioedema is usually localised to a single area such as the hands, feet, and genitalia. It most commonly affects the face in children. The child may have a swollen tongue, eyelids, or lips. Angioedema is often tender or painful.
Inducible urticaria due to a physical stimulus often comes on within minutes after exposure and resolves in less than an hour. The weals will be localised to the exposed site. Angioedema is exceptionally rare in these cases.
Urticaria and angioedema in children
Urticaria is usually self-limiting and will go away on its own. However, it can often be very uncomfortable for a child due to the intense itchiness. There are usually no serious long-term consequences for children .
Urticaria may be a component of anaphylaxis (severe allergic response). If the child is also struggling to breathe, wheezing, collapses, or seems unwell, seek urgent medical attention .
Urticaria is usually diagnosed by taking a medical history. Urticaria is characterised by individual weals resolving or changing within 24 hours. The child should be thoroughly examined to detect possible causes.
The differential diagnosis for urticaria in children includes a variety of infections and skin conditions.
Urticaria in children is treated with a non-sedating antihistamine, such as cetirizine. This is not curative, but often controls the itch and the spread of weals until the urticaria settles on its own.
Dosage recommendations based on age groups are as follows:
In severe cases that are unresponsive to antihistamines, oral prednisone may be given for a few days.
The itch may be reduced by cooling with a fan, ice pack, or moisturising lotion.
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