Angioedema

What is Angioedema?

Angioedema is swelling below the surface of the skin and fatty tissue that sometimes causes pain. It is similar to hives and can occur simultaneously. It commonly appears around the eyes, cheeks, and lips. Hereditary angioedema is a rare genetic disease (passed down in families). In these cases, the body does not make enough of a certain protein that plays an important role in controlling the immune system. It causes repeated life-threatening episodes of swelling, mostly in the face, hands, feet, vocal cords, or genitals. Swelling in the airways of the lungs or the intestinal walls can be dangerous.    

What Causes Angioedema?

Often, angioedema can be linked to an immune system problem, but in some cases no cause can be identified.

The four main types are:

  • Allergic angioedema, caused by an allergic reaction, such as to certain foods; medications such as penicillin, aspirin, and ibuprofen; insect bites and stings; and latex.
  • Idiopathic angioedema, having no known cause (although factors such as stress or infection may trigger symptoms).
  • Drug-induced angioedema, a side effect of certain medications, frequently blood pressure medications called angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors.
  • Hereditary angioedema (HAE), a rare condition caused by a genetic mutation that causes recurrent swelling in different parts of the body. Swelling can occur randomly and go away on its own, but can be life-threatening if swelling occurs in the throat. HAE medications treat acute swelling attacks and prevent flare-ups. 

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Angioedema?

Angioedema causes swelling in the deep layers of the skin. There may be pain, numbness, tingling, or warmth in the affected area.

Sometimes angioedema arises in conjunction with hives, which are red and itchy.

Seek emergency care if your child feels his or her throat is closing, has a change in voice quality or a muffled voice, or is having trouble breathing.

How is Angioedema Diagnosed?

A physician diagnoses angioedema by examining the affected areas of your child’s body, discussing the symptoms, and possibly ordering allergy tests or blood tests if a specific cause is suspected.

What Can I Do About Angioedema?

Avoid known triggers — such as certain foods, medications, temperature extremes, or sun exposure— that have caused an outbreak in the past.

Keep a journal to record any potential triggers (food, medications, exercise) that set off your symptoms.

What Treatment is Available for Angioedema?

Mild cases can be treated at home with over-the-counter antihistamines, which reduce itching, swelling, and other allergy symptoms. 

For severe angioedema, doctors may prescribe an oral corticosteroid drug — such as prednisone — to reduce swelling, redness and itching.

If antihistamines and corticosteroids are ineffective, a doctor might prescribe drugs that target various aspects of the immune system. Life-threatening episodes of angioedema may require an emergency injection of epinephrine to bring down the swelling. 

Learn about treatment at Lifespan for more pediatric asthma and allergy conditions »