Imagine not being able to swim or even take a shower without unbearable, itchy hives popping up on your skin. (Photo: Alexandra Allen)
While few people have heard of aquagenic urticaria, also known as an allergy to water, it is a real condition. Alexandra Allen, a 17-year-old from Mapleton, Utah, is one of the people diagnosed with this incurable condition. The teen noticed her first severe reaction to water when she was 12 years old during a family vacation, ABC News reports. Allen recalls swimming in a pool and then waking up later that evening itching and covered in hives. What she thought initially was a chlorine allergy turned out to be something much different. At age 15, Allen came across a story about aquagenic urticaria on the Internet and brought her research to her doctor’s attention. She fit the profile perfectly to her doctor’s amazement. Allen notes on her blog that she is a whole person despite the challenges her water allergy creates in her life.
“There will be days when you lay in bed covered in hives or whatever your symptoms may be and think that maybe I’m a mess up, a flaw in the assembly line of humanity, a printing error in the contract of life,” writes Allen on her blog.
(Photo: Alexandra Allen)
“I would like to say that I am not the only one with this illness, and there are [a] great deal of other illnesses like it,” she writes. “I am willing to speak out about it and let my story become one of these news-cycle fads because I know that somewhere there is a fourteen-year-old girl who can’t go swimming with her friends when they invite her. And I know that she feels freakish.”
Urticaria literally means “hives.” Aquagenic urticaria is a form of “physical urticaria” that causes small hives or wheals of edema when water touches the skin. Normal activities such as showering, crying, or getting wet from rain can cause a reaction. These outbreaks are often itchy and red, they burn, and can be painful. Within minutes of water exposure, hives, rash, or erythema (redness of the skin) may appear. “Individual hives last 24 hours or less. However, the course of a hive episode may be days to weeks, but usually there is spontaneous resolution when the response ‘burns out,’” Lawrence Eichenfield, MD, chief of pediatric and adolescent dermatology at the University of California, San Diego, tells Yahoo Health.
While Allen’s condition may seem like an unusual case, generally, urticarias aren’t so rare, Eichenfield says. “We really don’t know how rare aquagenic urticaria is. People will commonly have hive responses, often to infections, drug reactions, or allergies, or as part of an allergic response to food or environmental allergens,” he adds. Since Allen’s story broke, numerous people have commented online about their forms of urticaria.
A doctor can diagnose aquagenic urticaria by applying tap and distilled water to the skin and watching for a reaction. The cause of the condition remains a mystery, but patients can tame aquagenic urticaria reactions with antihistamines. “Other therapies can be considered for more serious cases, such as those associated with extracutaneous manifestations [manifestations beyond the skin response], such as headaches,” says Eichenfield.
Thankfully, drinking water does not cause a reaction. “Obviously that would be bad!” Eichenfield says. “I am unaware of anyone ever reporting this. It is a different kind of response than a ‘classic food allergy.’”