Hereditary angioedema is a rare but serious problem with the immune system. The problem is passed down through families. It causes swelling, particularly of the face and airways, and abdominal cramping.
Angioedema is swelling that is similar to hives, but the swelling is under the skin instead of on the surface.
Hereditary angioedema (HAE) is caused by a low level or improper function of a protein called the C1 inhibitor. It affects the blood vessels. An HAE attack can result in rapid swelling of the hands, feet, limbs, face, intestinal tract, larynx (voicebox), or trachea (windpipe).
Attacks of swelling can become more severe in late childhood and adolescence.
There is usually a family history of the condition. But relatives may be unaware of previous cases, which may have been reported as an unexpected, sudden, and premature death of a parent, aunt, uncle, or grandparent.
Dental procedures, sickness (including colds and the flu), and surgery may trigger HAE attacks.
- Airway blockage -- involves throat swelling and sudden hoarseness
- Repeat episodes of abdominal cramping without obvious cause
- Swelling in the hands, arms, legs, lips, eyes, tongue, throat, or genitals
- Swelling of the intestines -- can be severe and lead to abdominal cramping, vomiting, dehydration, diarrhea, pain, and occasionally shock
- A non-itchy, red rash
Exams and Tests
Blood tests (ideally done during an episode):
- C1 inhibitor function
- C1 inhibitor level
- Complement component 4
Antihistamines and other treatments used for angioedema do not work well for HAE. Epinephrine should be used in life-threatening reactions. There are a number of newer FDA-approved treatments for HAE.
Some are given through a vein (IV) and can be used at home. Others are given as an injection under the skin by the patient.
- Choice of which agent may be based on the age of the person and where the symptoms occur.
- Names of new drugs for treatment of HAE include Cinryze, Berinert, Ruconest, Kalbitor, and Firazyr.
Before these newer medicines became available, androgen medicines such as danazol, were used to reduce the frequency and severity of attacks. These medicines help the body make more C1 inhibitor. However, many women have serious side effects from these medicines. They can also not be used in children.
Once an attack occurs, treatment includes pain relief and fluids given through a vein by an intravenous (IV) line.
Helicobacter pylori, a type of bacteria found in the stomach, can trigger abdominal attacks. Antibiotics to treat the bacteria help decrease abdominal attacks.
More information and support for people with HAE condition and their families can be found at:
- National Organization for Rare Disorders -- rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/hereditary-angioedema
- US Hereditary Angioedema Association -- www.haea.org
HAE can be life threatening and treatment options are limited. How well a person does depends on the specific symptoms.
Swelling of the airways may be deadly.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Contact or visit your health care provider if you are considering having children and have a family history of this condition. Also call if you have symptoms of HAE.
Swelling of the airway is a life-threatening emergency. If you are having difficulty breathing due to swelling, seek immediate medical attention.
Genetic counseling may be helpful for prospective parents with a family history of HAE.
Quincke disease; HAE - Hereditary angioedema; Kallikrein inhibitor - HAE; Bradykinin receptor antagonist - HAE; C1-inhibitors - HAE; Hives - HAE
Craig T, Zuraw B, Longhurst H, et al, eds. Long-term outcomes with subcutaneous c1-inhibitor replacement therapy for prevention of hereditary angioedema attacks. J Allergy Clin Immunol Pract. 2019;7(6):1793-1802.e2. PMID: 30772477 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30772477/.
Dreskin SC. Urticaria and angioedema. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 237.
Longhurst H, Cicardi M, Craig T, et al; COMPACT investigators. Prevention of hereditary angioedema attacks with a subcutaneous C1 inhibitor. N Engl J Med. 2017;376(12):1131-1140. PMID: 28328347 pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28328347/.
Zuraw BL, Christiansen SC. Hereditary angioedema and bradykinin-mediated angioedema. In: Burks AW, Holgate ST, O'Hehir RE, et al, eds. Middleton's Allergy: Principles and Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 36.
Review Date 1/23/2022
Updated by: Stuart I. Henochowicz, MD, FACP, Clinical Professor of Medicine, Division of Allergy, Immunology, and Rheumatology, Georgetown University Medical School, Washington, DC. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.