A woman with visible hives glances back at her reflection that shows the invisible symptoms of her condition


Many chronic illnesses are considered to be “invisible”, meaning that the symptoms and toll it takes on a person cannot be seen with the eye. A visible illness can be discerned by looking at a person—a wheelchair for the paralyzed, a bald head from cancer, an insulin pump for a diabetic. But what about chronic hives? Is it visible or invisible? I would argue that it is both.

Chronic hives are characterized by raised, red, itchy bumps on the skin; some people also experience angioedema, or swelling, usually of the hands, feet, face, and throat. Both hives and angioedema are textbook symptoms of a visible illness. These characteristics of chronic hives can be seen by others and can be quite noticeable. I get very self-conscious when I have a flare because my symptoms are easily seen. My face swells up like a balloon and my skin is covered in red, irritated blotches. It’s hard to let people see me in that state, yet it is inevitable.

Are there advantages to having a visible illness?

For me, the most poignant aspect of having a visible illness is the immediate validation that my symptoms are not “just in my head”. Doctors can be extremely dismissive of symptoms, especially when they are invisible. But my hives? Yep, there they are. Clear as day. No doctor can deny the hives when they see my discolored skin or my swollen face. And I certainly don’t doubt the symptoms myself, always wondering if the doctors are correct and there’s nothing wrong with me if they can't see anything.

Another advantage would be that other people can see and acknowledge my condition too. I know many people who have chronic illnesses that are considered invisible and some of them struggle immensely getting their family and friends to see and understand their illness. It’s certainly a struggle to know that something is wrong, but because someone else can’t see it, they can’t or won’t, understand it.

Chronic hives are also invisible

So how can chronic hives also be considered invisible? It’s easy to see the things that are on the surface, but like other invisible diseases, the toll it takes on the mind and body cannot ever be visibly portrayed. I can’t show someone my itch, although they may see me up all night because my hives are so uncomfortable I can’t sleep. I can’t show someone the desperation I feel to get answers and find triggers. I can’t show someone the pain and discomfort caused by hives, or the fatigue that riddles my body from fighting day and night.

And there’s also the isolation that chronic hives can cause. This can be out of self-consciousness or maybe even because symptoms are so uncontrollable that going out in public just isn’t possible. Being on immunosuppressants for my chronic hives means that I am isolated. In order for my body to not fight itself, it also cannot fight off foreign invaders while I’m on these medications. I have pretty strict orders from my doctors to not go places because if I were to get sick, it would be bad news bears.

Visible and invisible

It’s a blessing and a curse to have both a visible and invisible illness. On one hand, I’m glad that my friends, family, and doctors can see my symptoms. It gives doctors clues as to what is going on and can aid in a proper diagnosis. But it also causes self-consciousness and physical discomfort in my own skin. But, as the saying goes, there’s more than meets the eye. The symptoms themselves go beyond the visible and the mental and emotional effects of the disease can be profound. For me, chronic hives are both visible and invisible.

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