Chronic idiopathic urticaria (CIU) can be extremely disabling and difficult to treat, with little response to antihistamine therapy. The pathogenic mechanisms of the disease are not well understood, but the primary effector cell is the mast cell. Release of mast cell mediators can cause inflammation and accumulation and activation of other cells, including eosinophils, neutrophils, and possibly basophils. Recent work has demonstrated that about one third of patients with CIU have circulating functional histamine-releasing autoantibodies that bind to the high-affinity IgE receptor (Fc epsilon RI) or, less commonly, to IgE; mast cell-specific histamine-releasing activity that has not yet been fully characterized; no identifiable circulating histamine-releasing activity. The mainstay of treatment of CIU consists of antithistamines, but immunotherapy using plasmapheresis, intravenous immunoglobulin, and cyclosporin may be valuable in severely affected patients with treatment-resistant disease. The response to immunomodulation and the recent finding of an association with HLA DR4 lend further support for an autoimmune basis to CIU in some patients.