5 Skin Disorders You Might Mistake for Hives

By: Thorin Klosowski  | 

Red or swollen, itchy bumps on your skin could be hives, or it could easily be a similar-looking condition. See more pictures of skin problems.

Self-diagnosis of skin disorders is never an easy task. It's made more difficult when different conditions have similar symptoms. Hives, for example, come in two types -- acute and chronic -- and are usually caused by your body releasing histamine in reaction to an allergy. Histamine is an organic compound in your body responsible for triggering the inflammatory process. With hives, the histamine causes fluid to release from the blood vessels and makes the skin swell [source: Rockoff].

It can be easy to mistake hives for other disorders because the allergy triggers can be difficult to find. Another problem with diagnosing hives is that the symptoms are relatively generic -- red, itchy welts on your skin are a common symptom among many skin disorders.


Hives can be caused from allergens as well as physical and environmental factors such as stress, heat, sunlight or water. Untreated, the symptoms can last from a couple hours up to six weeks. As we'll see throughout this article, many skin disorders share these causes and triggers, so close attention to detail is key when figuring out the mystery of your skin disorder.

Because blood and allergy tests exist to confirm hives at the doctor's office, and antihistamines are readily available over the counter, determining the diagnosis and appropriate treatment might seem easy. However, since many of these disorders show the same symptoms and have different treatment methods, it's important to be aware of the similarities and differences between them. So, read on to learn about five common skin disorders that may look and feel a lot like hives.

5. Heat Rash

Overdressing babies when they're out in the sun can cause heat rash, because babies' sweat ducts aren't as developed as adults'.
Overdressing babies when they're out in the sun can cause heat rash, because babies' sweat ducts aren't as developed as adults'.

As with hives, heat rash features raised, red bumps on the skin. While heat rash shares its redness, swelling and itchiness with hives, the raised bumps on the skin are usually smaller than hives and resemble small pimples. Also, heat rash is more common in babies, whereas hives can affect any age group.

Heat rash develops when sweat ducts are blocked in hot temperatures, and it commonly happens to infants because their sweat ducts aren't as developed as adults. It can occur when a baby is overdressed for weather, when heavy creams or clothing block the pores or during physical activity that causes sweating [source: Family Doctor].


Most cases of heat rash will disappear in a couple days if you air dry the skin, loosen and remove clothing and keep the temperature controlled whenever possible. If those things don't work, you can apply calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream to calm the rash, but you'll want to avoid other types of lotions or ointments because they can act as an irritant on the sensitive skin [source: WebMD].

4. Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis can be confused with hives on first glance because it shares many of the same symptoms. The red rash and bumps are accompanied by itchy, dry skin. The only difference is that hives can show up on several areas of the skin, but contact dermatitis appears only on the areas that are exposed to an allergen or an irritant. It generally lasts about the same length of time as hives, usually resolving itself without medication in two to four weeks.

Much like hives, the treatment will come from antihistamines. You'll also need to avoid the irritant to prevent future outbreaks. If the symptoms are mild to moderate you can usually get away with applying a wet compress to the affected area or using an anti-itch cream [source: Mayo Clinic].


3. Rosacea

Although hives is rarely a chronic disorder, rosacea is always one. It may start out similar to a case of hives on your face -- rosacea features small, red bumps on the nose, cheeks, forehead and chin as well as reddened areas across the face. But the similarities stop there.

Before the onset of rosacea, you may begin to notice that you blush easily and the redness continues across your face. When rosacea is inflamed, the small, red bumps crop up on the skin [source: National Rosacea Society]. Unlike hives, though, which can affect different parts of the body, rosacea is limited to the face.


The cause of rosacea is unknown, but it may have roots in hereditary factors as well as environmental ones. That said, there are certain things that aggravate the condition, such as exercise, consuming hot foods or alcohol, or exposure to sunlight, heat or stress [source: Mayo Clinic].

There is no complete treatment for rosacea, but there are topical and oral medications that have been known to help lessen its effects. Antibiotics may be prescribed both as an oral and topical measure, while certain topical treatments like benzoyl peroxide and azelaic acid might be prescribed to keep inflammation and redness down.

2. Eczema (Atopic Dermatitis)

Atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema, is aesthetically similar to hives at first glance. Eczema's symptoms include red patches of itchy skin often accompanied by small, raised bumps and cracked skin. As is the case with hives, it tends to appear behind the knees, around ankles, wrists, face, neck and the upper chest area, and it can even affect the area around your eyes, including the eyelids. Unlike hives, though, eczema doesn't go away permanently.

Although the exact cause of eczema is unknown, it's thought to be linked with dry and irritated skin as well as an overactive immune system, which may cause the body to trigger allergic reactions when they're not necessary. It's also commonly linked with Staphylococcus bacteria, which can increase the severity of the symptoms. The symptoms can also be worsened by stress, sweating, dry skin, low humidity, dust, cigarette smoke, foods and wool or manmade clothing.


Eczema might look like hives on the surface, but where treatment is concerned, it's completely different. Even though eczema has been associated with allergies, getting rid of allergens is rarely helpful to the condition. Treatment is limited to things that lessen the pain of eczema, including corticosteroid creams and antihistamines to relieve itching, oral corticosteroids to decrease inflammation, and immunomodulators, which work with the immune system to reduce flare-ups. Light therapy is also known to be effective in dealing with eczema because ultraviolet rays can slow the inflammatory process [source: WebMD].

1. Pityriasis Rosea

Like hives and everything else on this list, pityriasis rosea begins with large, raised red patches of skin. Pityriasis rosea may also come with a headache, fever, sore throat and stuffy nose. At the outset, pityriasis rosea begins with a herald patch, often confused for both hives and ringworm. As it progresses, it spreads around the initial patch with small, scaly spots resembling a pine tree [source: American Osteopathic College of Dermatology].

The cause of pityriasis rosea is unknown. No bacteria, fungus or virus has been attributed to its onset [source: Lichenstein]. It is possible that certain types of herpes may play a role, but no definitive cause has been found.


Generally, pityriasis rosea will go away on its own in four to six weeks, but in certain cases, a doctor may treat the rash. Certain antiviral medications are known to reduce the duration by a couple weeks, but usually oral antihistamines and steroid creams are prescribed to help counter the itching.

If you'd like to learn more about hives or other skin infections, you'll find more information on the next page.

Originally Published: Jun 22, 2010

Hives vs Rash FAQ

What do hives look like?
Hives are itchy, red welts that are raised on the skin. They vary in size from a few millimeters to a few centimeters in diameter.
What is the difference between a rash and hives?
Hives are a type of rash that tend to turn white when pressed. A simple rash may or may not have bumps and may not itch.
Can hives be a sign of something serious?
Hives are most often due to an allergic reaction to certain foods or medications. If accompanied by a drop in blood pressure or difficulty breathing, you should seek medical attention immediately as the allergic reaction is more severe and could cause your airway to close.
What are the main causes of hives?
Some of the most common allergens that cause hives include certain foods or medication, insect stings, latex, and animal dander.
How do you stop stress hives?
One of the best homemade treatments for hives caused by stress is to cool the skin with an ice pack to relieve the itchiness. Non-prescription antihistamines can also be taken for quick relief.

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  • American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. "Tips to Remember: Allergic Skin Conditions." 2010. (June 6, 2010).http://www.aaaai.org/patients/publicedmat/tips/allergicskinconditions.stm
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Types of Eczema -- Atopic Dermatitis." Updated Jan. 14, 2010. (June 15, 2010)http://www.skincarephysicians.com/eczemanet/atopic_dermatitis.html
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Urticaria - Hives." Sept. 2005. (June 6, 2010).http://www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/skin_urticaria.html
  • American Osteopathic College of Dermatology. "Pityriasis Rosea." (June 8, 2010).http://www.aocd.org/skin/dermatologic_diseases/pityriasis_rosea.html
  • Family Doctor. "Heat Rash." July 2009. (June 6, 2010).http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/skin/disorders/921.html
  • Intelihealth. "Eczema." July 3, 2009. (June 5, 2010).http://www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH?t=9808
  • Lichenstein, Richard MD. "Pityriasis Rosea." Dec. 8, 2009. (June 8, 2010).http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/762725-overview
  • Mayo Clinic. "Atopic dermatitis (eczema)." Aug. 22, 2009. (June 6, 2010).http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/eczema/DS00986
  • Mayo Clinic. "Contact dermatitis." July 31, 2009. (June 6, 2010).http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/contact-dermatitis/ds00985
  • Mayo Clinic. "Rosacea." Nov. 15, 2008. (June 6, 2010).http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/rosacea/DS00308/
  • National Rosacea Society. "All About Rosacea." (June 8, 2010).http://www.rosacea.org/patients/allaboutrosacea.php
  • National Rosacea Society. "Frequently Asked Questions." (June 18, 2010)http://www.rosacea.org/patients/faq.php
  • Rockoff, Alan MD. "Hives." Medicinenet.com. Feb. 24, 2010. (June 12, 2010).http://www.medicinenet.com/hives/article.htm
  • Stöppler, Melissa. "Eczema." Medicinenet.com. Jan. 22, 2010. (June 6, 2010).http://www.medicinenet.com/eczema/article.htm
  • WebMd. "Eczema." Feb. 7, 2009. (June 8, 2010).http://www.webmd.com/allergies/guide/eczema
  • WebMD. "Heat Rash - Topic Overview." August 01, 2008. (June 6, 2010).http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/tc/heat-rash-topic-overview