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Urticaria, Physical

Synonyms of Urticaria, Physical

  • Autographism
  • Physical Allergy Urticaria

Disorder Subdivisions

  • Aquagenic Urticaria
  • Cold Urticaria
  • Dermatographia
  • Dermographism

General Discussion

Physical urticaria is a condition in which red (erythematous) allergic skin lesions and itching (pruritus) are produced by exposure to heat, cold, or contact with chemicals or plants. These are called wheals by the medical community and may range in size from a couple of millimeters to a couple of centimeters. The center of the lesion may range in color from white to red, and it is usually surrounded by a flare of red skin. The disorder occurs most commonly in children.


The most common symptoms of physical urticaria are itching (pruritus) and hives consisting of red rings around white ridges (wheals). Sensitivity to cold is usually manifested by these eruptions on the skin, itching, and swelling under the skin (angioedema). These symptoms develop most typically after exposure to cold is terminated and during or after swimming or bathing. Contraction of the muscles around the bronchi (bronchospasm) and even histamine-mediated shock may occur in extreme cases. If this happens during swimming, drowning may present a danger.

Sensitivity to cold can be passively transferred with serum that contains a specific immunoglobulin (IgE) antibody, suggesting an allergic reaction involving a physically altered skin protein as the cause of the allergic reaction. The serum of a few patients with cold-induced symptoms of physical urticaria contains cryoglobulins or cryofibrinogen, these abnormal proteins can also be associated with a serious underlying disorder such as a malignancy, a collagen vascular disease, or chronic infection. Cold may aggravate asthma or vasomotor rhinitis, but cold urticaria is independent of any other known allergic tendencies.

Dermatographia, dermographism, or autographism describes welts or wheels produced by scratching or firmly stroking the skin. According to some dermatologists, dermographism is the most common form of physical urticaria. This sign can appear quite suddenly and may become apparent in hot weather or after a hot shower or bath. Occasionally it is the first sign of an urticarial drug reaction. Physical urticaria has also occurred following persistent vibration of the skin, and even after exposure to water (aquagenic urticaria).


The underlying cause of physical urticaria is unknown in most cases. Some clinicians believe that an auto-immunological process is responsible.

Affected Populations

Cold urticaria occurs most often in infants, although it sometimes occurs in adults.

Related Disorders

Cholinergic urticaria is a specific physical urticaria characterized by red spots on the skin, hives, itching and sometimes abdominal cramps, diarrhea, faintness, and weakness. Symptoms come about as a result of sweating from exposure to heat, sunlight, exercise, etc.

Papular urticaria, more commonly known as hives, is characterized by local elevated ridges (wheals) and redness (erythema) of the skin, usually caused by allergic reactions to insect bites, sensitivity to drugs or other environmental causes. (For more information on this disorder, choose "physical urticaria" as your search term in the Rare Disease Database.)

Aquagenic urticaria is an itching condition caused by exposure to water. It is another physical urticaria.

Contact urticaria refers to the non-allergic stinging reaction to certain plants, animals or medicines.

Contact dermatitis is an acute or chronic inflammation of the skin, often sharply demarcated, produced by substances in contact with the skin to which a person is allergic. (For more information on this disorder, choose "Contact Dermatitis" as your search term in the Rare Disease Database.)

Standard Therapies

The patient history and physical examination are the tools most often used to diagnose physical urticaria. If there is a history of reactions to physical triggers, the diagnosis may be confirmed with a challenge. The challenge is the application of the suspected agent, for example ice or light, to the skin, in hope of getting a response.

Protection from and avoidance of the physical cause of the reaction is necessary. Symptoms such as itching and swelling can usually be relieved with an oral antihistamine. The more powerful systematic (intravenous) corticosteroids should be avoided unless they are vital.

Investigational Therapies

Information on current clinical trials is posted on the Internet at All studies receiving U.S. government funding, and some supported by private industry, are posted on this government web site.

For information about clinical trials being conducted at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD, contact the NIH Patient Recruitment Office:

Tollfree: (800) 411-1222
TTY: (866) 411-1010

For information about clinical trials sponsored by private sources, contact:

Urticaria, Physical Resources



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Wanderer AA, Hoffman HM. The spectrum of acquired and familial cold-induced urticaria/urticaria-like syndromes. Immunol Allergy Clin North Am. 2004;24:259-86, vii.

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Brooks C, Kujawska A, Patel D. Cutaneous allergic reactions induced by sporting activities. Sports Med. 2003;33:699-708.

Muller BA. A comprehensive review of physical urticaria. Compr Ther. 2002;28:214-21.

Strachan DD. Urticaria, Chronic. Last Updated: March 31, 2005. 15pp.

The information in NORD’s Rare Disease Database is for educational purposes only. It should never be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes. If you have questions regarding a medical condition, always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional. NORD’s reports provide a brief overview of rare diseases. For more specific information, we encourage you to contact your personal physician or the agencies listed as “Resources” on this report.

Report last updated: 2008/04/15 00:00:00 GMT+0

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