What are Angioedema?
Angioedema is a type of swelling of the skin and mucous membranes that generally occurs in soft tissue of the skin and mucous membranes. Similar to hives which affect the surface layer of the skin, angioedema causes swollen welts in the deeper layers of the skin and tends to affect areas such as such as the face, eyelids, mouth, lips, tongue, hands, feet, and genitals.
Types of angioedema
There are two types of angioedema, allergic and hereditary angioedema.
Allergic angioedema is usually triggered by some allergy or irritant and often occurs together with hives. While most cases of allergic angioedema are not serious and tend to disappear between a few minutes and a few days, the condition can be quite distressing, causing discomfort, self-consciousness, pain and itchiness On rare occasions where angioedema occurs in the throat or mouth, normal breathing or swallowing can become difficult and airways may become altogether blocked. In situations like this, angioedema is life-threatening and must be treated as a medical emergency.
Hereditary angioedema (HAE) on the other hand is a rare, inherited and more serious form of angioedema that is not associated with allergies or hives. This genetic condition often causes recurrent attacks of angioedema which amongst other areas, commonly affects the lining of the gastrointestinal tract causing severe pain. HAE is a potentially fatal disease with a mortality rate as high as 30% as a result of upper airway swelling.
A thorough medical history and physical examination of the affected area is usually enough to make a diagnosis of angioedema. Your health care practitioner will need to know if you or members of your family have any allergies or a history of skin rashes, and if necessary, a skin prick test may be recommended to help identify allergens. Remember to inform you physician of any medication you may be taking, as angioedema is a common side-effect of many pharmaceutical drugs.
If hereditary angioedema is suspected, then blood tests will be necessary to make an accurate diagnosis.
What Causes Angioedema?
Angioedema is usually caused when an allergic reaction is triggered and histamines are released into the bloodstream. This exaggerated immune reaction is often set off by one of many possible allergens or triggers, and in many cases, the exact cause of angioedema goes unidentified.
Some common causes include:
- Common allergens including pollen, dust mites, animal dander, latex and insect bites or stings.
- Almost all pharmaceutical drugs have the potential to trigger angioedema as a side effect. Commonly implicated medications include antibiotics, aspirin, ibuprofen, blood pressure medications and some anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Certain foods tend to trigger reactions in sensitive people. Common culprits include shellfish, fish, nuts, wheat, soybeans, eggs and milk.
- Pressure on the skin or a scratch can trigger a histamine response resulting in angioedema. This is often referred to as dermatographism.
- In some cases illness or infections can cause angioedema. Autoimmune diseases, thyroid disorders, cancer, hepatitis and even a cold can trigger a reaction.
Other triggers include allergy shots, emotional stress, and certain environmental and physical factors such as heat, cold, sunlight, exercise, pregnancy or menstruation in women.
Hereditary angioedema is caused by an inherited genetic problem that causes abnormal functioning of certain blood proteins necessary for regulating immune system functions.
Help for Angioedema
If the symptoms of angioedema are mild and are not causing too much discomfort or pain, then medical treatment is generally not necessary and the condition should soon disappear by itself. For those with more severe, persistent, or reoccurring symptoms, there are a few treatment options worth exploring. Keep in mind that any angioedema that causes difficulty breathing, or swallowing, or should you feel your throat is swelling, immediate medical attention should be sought.
Angioedema is conventionally treated with prescription or over-the-counter anti-histamines such as diphenhydramine or loratadine. Keep in mind that many antihistamines come with unwanted side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, poor coordination, nervousness, and diarrhea. If used over long periods of time, a tolerance to the drug may develop, causing it to lose its effectiveness.
In emergency situations, an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline) is usually given to quickly reduce symptoms. If angioedema is a frequent problem, your physician may recommend an epinephrine auto-injector kit that can be self-administered in an emergency.
Both epinephrine and antihistamines are usually ineffective when treating hereditary angioedema. Treatment often involves the long-tern use of male sex hormones (androgens) which helps to regulate the production of blood proteins, and in emergency situations, a blood transfusion may be necessary.
Many herbal and homeopathic ingredients have been shown to be incredibly successful at easing the bothersome symptoms of allergies and effectively relieving inflammation. Examples of such ingredients include Quercitin, which is well know for its ability to block the release of histamine, and Urtica urens, which has been used for many centuries in folk medicine to treat both inflammation and allergies. Other ingredients such as Plantago lanceolata and Allium cepa are commonly used to reduce swelling, soothe itchiness, and ease the irritation of mucous membranes.
More Information on Angioedema
Tips on Prevention
While mild allergic angioedema may not require medical treatment, there are a number of self-care and prevention tips that may help to ease the symptoms and prevent recurrent flare ups.
- Get to know you triggers and avoid them. Try keeping a diary of flare ups and possible allergens or irritants that you were exposed to at the time to help identify your triggers.
- Use a cool compress to soothe the skin and reduce discomfort.
- Avoid irritating or scratching the affected area, as this will increase swelling. Wear loose-fitting and light clothing that doesn’t rub on the swelling.
- A cool shower or soak in the bath will help reduce swelling and discomfort, but stay clear of hot baths or showers, as this will aggravate the angioedema.
- Avoid activities that may cause perspiration.
- Relax, de-stress and work towards resolving emotional issues that may be triggering the condition.
- Incorporate yogurt with acidophilus into your diet to help reduce inflammation.