What? An allergy to the cold? Is that even a thing? Yes, in fact it is. Cold-induced urticaria is a histamine (allergic) reaction to cold temperatures, most often cold air or water. It causes hives to appear on the skin of the exposed area and in my case if I get too many hives I can go into anaphylactic shock and faint because my blood pressure drops too much. In case you’re curious, this has only happened to me once.
I was at a New England beach with my friends in early June, so the water was COLD. I didn’t know about my cold allergy yet (I had gotten rashes on my cheeks when I went skiing but I had merely attributed this to “sensitive skin”). About five minutes after I got out of the water, my friend asked, “what’s happening to your legs?”. Looking down, I saw that they had ballooned to nearly twice their original size (that might be a slight exaggeration), had turned the color of tomatoes and a rash was quickly spreading. The reaction is actually the worst when you’re drying off because the water evaporates from your skin, taking heat with it and leaving you even colder. I was fine until about 30 minutes later when I was suddenly overcome with a sensation of extreme nausea, quickly followed by the near-loss of my vision and hearing. My valiant friends fetched me water and waited with me until the feeling passed--I didn’t faint but I came very close. I later learned that this was due to the extreme drop in my blood pressure caused by the hives. And that’s the story of why I carry an Epipen around with me now.
Back to the current matter, why and how do I live with this condition in upstate New York? First of all, I’m from Boston so although my cold-induced urticaria only developed when I was about 15, I’ve had a few years of practice with cold winters. Knowing that I have this condition, my parents encouraged me to look at schools in the South where the winters would be more mild. However, I ended up not liking any of the schools I visited in the South (no offense to Southern schools, they just weren’t for me) and fell in love with Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. So, here we are.
Although I’m used to the cold in Boston, I (correctly) anticipated that I would be walking more in college as to get between most buildings there is no other option than to go outside. Skidmore is (unwittingly) perfectly set up for a person with cold-induced urticaria. There are overpasses EVERYWHERE to shield me from the snow and rain (cold rain is particularly bad), all of the academic buildings are connected so you can get to virtually any classroom without going outside, and the campus is so compact that my longest walk is a six-minute walk to the music building.
That being said, I still have to bundle up in my wool coat, scarf, mittens, hat, leggings AND sweatpants if I want to do something like wait for the bus or walk the 15 minutes to CVS. When I get a reaction, often the worst part (aside from the consequent light-headedness) is embarrassment from having a rash on my face that I’m sure people don’t know the cause of. I’m ashamed to say this because my body’s natural reaction to its environment shouldn’t be something that I feel I have to hide, however knowing that doesn’t necessarily change the way I feel about it. Thus, for my own comfort and fear of embarrassment, I often make conscious choices such as calling a taxi so I don’t have to wait in the cold for a bus.
Why am I telling you all of this? I don’t really know, perhaps to spread awareness so that the next time you see somebody’s face covered with hives you’ll know the reason why. I should note that my friends are incredibly supportive, always lending me coats and gloves, which is incredibly appreciated. As one friend said to me, “it’s just an excuse for me to give you more hugs”. Everybody has their quirks and this is mine, so just be conscious of each others' unique qualities and remember that we’re beautiful in all of our variety.