For lots of people, winter 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 cold weather 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, anxiety, headaches, and wheezing or trouble breathing — 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 cold weather, but by swimming in cold water, sitting in an air conditioned room, or even sipping a chilly beverage.
Though this may sound like a rare illness, Today reports that 15 to 25 percent of Americans will experience cold urticaria at one point in their lives — though according to immunologist Sandra Hong, speaking to Cleveland Clinic, most sufferers will find their symptoms go away within five years. And while severe cases are not common, even a mild case of cold urticaria can cause undue stress in your life — especially because the symptoms can be easily mistaken for other winter illnesses.
So read on and learn five common symptoms of cold allergy — because if you do have it, there’s no reason to suffer through another winter feeling bad.
1. Your Hands Feel Swollen
Swollen hands can be a symptom of a number of health problems related to cold weather — if you’re a winter sports enthusiast, you may have personally experienced chillblains, an inflammation where your hands swell, itch, or blister when you warm up after being exposed to very cold weather.
But if your hands frequently swell after coming in contact with low temperatures, you may be suffering from an allergy to the cold. This problem isn’t exclusive to exposure to cold outdoor weather — some sufferers may even experience swelling from holding a cold drink, like a can of soda or iced coffee. And while swelling is most common in the hands, it can pop up other places, as well — most dangerously, some cold urticaria sufferers can experience swelling in their throat, which is potentially lethal.
2. Your Skin Turns Red — And Stays That Way
We’re not talking about the flush of red in our cheeks that many of us experience after walking against the wind in the cold; those with cold allergies will often find that parts of their body that are exposed to low temperatures turn a deep red. This redness also won’t necessarily go away as soon as sufferers enter a warm environment; in some cases, the symptoms actually worsen when sufferers come in from the cold, and can last as long as 24 hours.
3. You Break Out In Hives
Cold urticaria is similar to many other allergic reactions, in terms of how it manifests — as Lisa Sanders, M.D., explained in the New York Times, “[a]n allergic reaction occurs when some exposure triggers special white blood cells … to release chemicals…into the bloodstream,” which then leads to the swelling, itching, and other skin changes common to allergic reactions.
This is why hives, one of the most common signs of exposure to allergens, can also be a symptom of cold urticaria. In fact, doctors often test for cold urticaria by placing an ice cube against the patient’s skin, to see if it leads to hives, redness, or swelling.
4. You Feel Dizzy
According to the Mayo Clinic’s website, people with severe cold allergies may feel dizzy or light-headed upon sudden exposure to the cold (like exiting the house, or jumping into a ver cold swimming pool). Unlike many of the other symptoms of cold allergy, which are just unpleasant or inconvenient, cold allergy-related dizziness can be dangerous — especially because sufferers often experience it while swimming, running the risk of becoming disoriented while out on the water.
If you have ever experienced any cold allergy symptoms, seeing a doctor and getting treatment can help improve your quality of life; but if you’ve ever felt dizzy from exposure to the cold, make seeing a doctor a priority — cold allergy-related dizziness can have especially dangerous ramifications because it may strike sufferers suddenly.
5. It Runs In Your Family
Though researchers have a hard time saying exactly what causes people to develop cold urticaria — in many cases, the allergy can be developed after exposure to a virus or other illness — recent studies have suggested that it can be passed down through families. According to research conducted in 2012 at the Laboratory of Allergic Diseases at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, cold urticaria is often genetically transmitted, and siblings will often suffer from similar symptoms.
The Bottom Line
There is some good news if you’re suffering from cold allergies — the symptoms can generally be kept in check with antihistamines, as well as precautionary measures like bundling up before going outside and avoiding air conditioning. In some cases, cold urticaria is a symptom of another underlying illness, like hepatitis or cancer; in those situations, getting treatment for the primary health problem should also help your allergy settle down.
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).