You Can Be Allergic To The Cold (No, Really)
For lots of people, cold weather is more than just an annoyance; in addition to the general physical discomfort that we feel when outside in the cold, exposure to cold weather can trigger asthma attacks, make our skin painfully dry, and induce joint pain. But some people experience the dark side of winter in a whole different way — because they're actually allergic to the cold. People who have intense physical reactions to low temperatures — including skin rashes and hives, swelling, fatigue, headaches, wheezing or trouble breathing, and in rare cases, anaphylactic shock — may suffer from "cold urticaria" or "cold-induced urticaria," which is the formal medical way of saying that when your body comes in contact with anything cold, it reacts very negatively.
Most cold urticaria sufferers experience allergic reactions similar to what people with food allergies might go through. But while those of us with food or pet allergies can try to avoid our triggers, it's much harder to avoid a whole range of temperatures — especially because cold urticaria can be triggered not only by exposure to cold weather, but by summer activities like swimming in cold water, sitting in an air conditioned room, or even just standing in the freezer aisle at the grocery store, trying to decide which Halo Top flavor to buy.
According to Dr. Thamiris Palacios-Kibler, an allergist/immunologist specialist, though cold urticaria is most common among the pediatric population, "anyone can really get it." And while in a small percentage of cases cold urticaria is actually a symptom of a larger health issue like hepatitis C, rheumatoid arthritis or lymphoma, "90% of the time we don't know the cause, why it starts and what the underlying problem is," Dr. Palacios-Kibler tells Bustle. All those afflicted can do is take steps to care for themselves and control their symptoms.
Luckily, in most cases, an allergy to the cold can be controlled the same way most allergies are — with prevention and treatment. But you have to know you have it in order to stay on top of it.
So read on to learn the signs of cold urticaria — and what to do if you think you might have it.
How Do You Know If You're Allergic To The Cold?
The most common symptoms that you suffer from cold urticaria are hives, welts, and swelling on the body. Dr. Palacios-Kibler reports that people who are allergic to the cold might "put their hands in the freezer, [and then] have to take it out immediately because they'll develop swelling," or have a welt pop up on their skin in a spot that came into contact with some falling snow.
Most sufferers will experience these symptoms within three to five minutes after their skin is exposed to the cold, though Dr. Palacios-Kibler notes that sometimes, there is a delayed reaction of symptoms. And in some cases, the symptoms actually worsen when sufferers come in from the cold, and can last as long as 24 hours.
How Do Doctors Diagnose Cold Allergy?
If you think you might have cold urticaria, make sure to see a doctor for diagnosis. They'll perform something called "the ice cube test," which involves a doctor holding an ice cube to a patch of bare skin, and then watching "for a hive [or] swelling to develop as the skin starts rewarming" over the next five to 15 minutes, according to Dr. Palacios-Kibler.
It's important to get a doctor involved in your treatment. Not only can they give you tips on managing the allergy and use blood tests to rule out other causes for your hives; they can also help you stay aware of the serious dangers cold urticaria can create. Folks with a severe version of the allergy can experience "systemic anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic reaction due to hypotension, or low blood pressure" when they go out in extreme cold weather, or jump into a cold body of water. If you have a severe allergy to the cold and jump into a cold pool, for example, you can go into anaphylaxis and asphyxiate, Dr. Palacios-Kibler notes. So don't try to handle this allergy on your own — it can be riskier than it sounds.
How Do You Treat A Cold Allergy?
If you've been diagnosed with cold urticaria, you may be wondering how exactly you're supposed to cope — move to the equator? Spend all summer out on the sidewalk, eating lukewarm soup? Luckily, if you're suffering from cold allergies, the symptoms can generally be kept in check with antihistamines, as well as precautionary measures like making sure all parts of your body are covered before you go outdoors in the winter.
And in the summer, Dr. Dr. Palacios-Kibler cautions, make sure to be careful around water; "[dip] your feet [and immerse your body] little by little...in a body of water, instead of diving into a pool." This will allow you to see if your body is having a reaction while you're still in shallow water. By contrast, if you just cannonball in instead, you run the risk of experiencing anaphylaxis in the water, which has led to drowning deaths among cold urticaria sufferers.
If you think you might have cold urticaria, you might be pretty danged bummed about now. But with solid prevention and treatment, you can still live a comfortable, welt-free life. And even if you have cold urticaria today, you may not be stuck with it forever — according to the National Institute of Health, in roughly 50% of cases, the allergy improves or disappears completely within six years.
The most important thing to remember, however, is that you're not doomed. There's help available, so there's no reason for you to be miserable every winter (or any more miserable than the rest of us, at least).
This post was originally published on December 9, 2015. It was updated on June 26, 2019