The cause for most hives remains mystery
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: I have something my physician calls urticaria. I woke up one morning with lots of itching all over my body. The skin was inflamed and covered with hives. I wonder if it’s an allergy. I have eaten the same foods all my life without any problems. I always wash my clothes in the same detergent. My doctor has prescribed Atarax. It makes me sleepy, but it gets rid of the hives and itching. I am going to see an allergist. Do you have any idea what could have caused this? It’s been going on for several months. — Anon.
What doctors call urticaria, nondoctors call hives. One out of every five adults will have at least one attack during their lives. A hive is a red patch with a slightly elevated, pale center. It itches. Hives come in crops. Each hive lasts from 12 to 36 hours, and then disappears. New ones take its place. Histamine causes them. Histamine comes from mast cells that are scattered throughout the body. When a mast cell bursts, it releases histamines and other chemicals.
Foods and food additives are one cause of histamine release, but they aren’t the major cause. Food allergy can develop at any time in life, and the allergen can be a food you used to eat without trouble. Foods most often implicated are eggs, peanuts, milk, nuts, soy, fish, shellfish, wheat and chocolate. The outbreak usually occurs within an hour of eating those foods. Allergies to pollens, fungi and molds are another cause. Many drugs can bring them on. My father used to break out in hives if he came within two feet of aspirin. Cold, heat, water and pressure on the skin from belts or bras also can spawn hives. Thyroid conditions provoke them. Do see an allergist. They’re the hive experts. But you should know that the greatest cause of hives is idiopathic. That’s a fancy word meaning “the cause cannot be found.”
You might have to settle for medicines that control hives but do not cure them. Atarax is such a medicine. It is an antihistamine, and antihistamines were designed specifically to counter the effects of histamine. Sometimes antihistamines have to be combined with medicines like cimetidine or famotidine, drugs used for heartburn. But they also have antihistamine properties, and their combination with an antihistamine packs a one-two punch.
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: On a recent mammogram, I was found to have breast calcifications. My doctor is getting a repeat done in a couple of months. What are breast calcifications? Are they a sign of cancer? If they are, why isn’t something being done right now? — K.O.
Breast calcifications can be completely innocent or can be suggestive of cancer. The body uses calcium to patch over many defects. An old bump could have caused a little bleeding within the breast, and the dried blood was covered over with calcium. The size of the calcifications, the pattern they make and the length of time they have been in the breast help distinguish between harmless and harmful calcifications. Sometimes a definite call cannot be made, and a repeat mammogram is done to see if any changes occur. Your being put on hold is not a threat to your health. It might save you from having to get a biopsy.
The booklet on breast cancer explains this common cancer, its detection and treatment. Readers can order a copy by writing: Dr. Donohue, No. 1101, Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Enclose a check or money order (no cash) for $4.75 U.S./$6 Can. with the recipient’s printed name and address. Please allow four weeks for delivery.
DEAR DR. DONOHUE: Does beer increase breast-milk production? I am breastfeeding my baby, and I’ve been told by more than one person that it does. — S.T.
Neither beer nor any other form of alcohol increases milk production. Alcohol passes into breast milk. Babies cannot handle alcohol as older people do. Their livers haven’t matured enough. It can harm the baby.
Dr. Donohue regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but he will incorporate them in his column whenever possible. Readers may write him or request an order form of available health newsletters at P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475. Readers may also order health newsletters from

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