Chronic urticaria is now recognized as an autoreactive disorder in a substantial fraction of patients. A serologic mediator of whealing has been demonstrated in 50-60% of patients with chronic urticaria, and autoantibodies against the high affinity IgE receptor or IgE have been detected in about half of these patients. The demonstration that chronic urticaria is frequently autoimmune has encouraged a more aggressive therapeutic approach, with the use of immunomodulatory drugs. A step-by-step approach to the management of chronic urticaria is proposed, based on our personal experience and review of current medical literature, identified through Medline research and hand searching in medical journals. The non- or low-sedating H1 receptor antagonists (antihistamines), such as cetirizine, fexofenadine, loratadine, mizolastine and, more recently, levocetirizine, desloratadine and ebastine, represent the basic therapy for all chronic urticaria patients. Older sedating antihistamines, such as hydroxyzine and diphenhydramine, may be indicated if symptoms are severe, are associated with angioedema, and if the patient is anxious and disturbed at night. Corticosteroid therapy with prednisone or methylprednisolone can be administered for a few days (7-14) if urticarial symptoms are not controlled by antihistamines and a rapid clinical response is needed. In cases of relapse after corticosteroid suspension, leukotriene receptor antagonists, such as montelukast and zafirlukast, should be tried. In our experience, remission of urticarial symptoms can be achieved in 20-50% of chronic urticaria patients unresponsive to antihistamines alone. When urticaria is unremitting and is not controlled by combined therapy with antihistamines and leukotriene receptor antagonists, prolonged corticosteroid therapy may be needed. Long-term corticosteroid therapy should be administered at the lowest dose able to control urticarial symptoms, in order to minimize adverse effects. In a few patients, however, high-dose corticosteroid therapy may have to be administered for long periods. In these patients, immunosuppressive treatment with low-dose cyclosporine can be started. This type of treatment has a corticosteroid-sparing effect and is also generally effective in patients with severe, unremitting urticaria, but requires careful monitoring of cyclosporine plasma concentration and possible adverse effects. Other immunomodulating drugs that have been tried in chronic urticaria patients include hydroxychloroquine, dapsone, sulfasalazine and methotrexate, but their efficacy has not been proven in large controlled studies. Warfarin therapy may also be considered in some patients with chronic urticaria and angioedema unresponsive to antihistamines.
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