Yes, you can be allergic to the cold and, in this case, it has nothing to do with how much we may dislike our brutal Quebec winters! Also known as cold urticaria or hives, this skin reaction to cold temperatures affects approximately 5 in 10,000 people.
Cold urticaria occurs when the temperature of the skin drops following exposure to cold air, water or objects or when the oral and esophageal mucous membranes cool after being in contact with cold foods or beverages, potentially causing lesions to the skin or tissues.
- Very cold weather, cold winds and even rain
- Swimming in cold water
- Bare feet on cold floors
- Air conditioning
- Cold beverages or foods, such as a soft drink or frozen treat
As with other allergies (e.g. hay fever), the mast and basophilic cells located beneath the skin are activated – in this case by the cold – and release histamine and other chemical mediators, causing the hives. Since the cold is not an allergen per se, some people are reluctant to refer to this response as an allergic reaction.
People who have this condition will experience the following symptoms when exposed to marked temperature changes:
- Itchy skin rashes that look like mosquito bites.
- Swelling of the eyes and face.
Symptoms mainly develop in the areas exposed to the cold, but can sometimes spread to other parts of the body. They generally disappear on their own after a few hours or days.
Prevention and treatment
Here are ways to prevent this allergic-type reaction:
- Avoid exposure to the trigger – the cold.
- If you absolutely must go outside on a cold day, cover your entire body well, including your face.
- Take an antihistamine to prevent, reduce or eliminate the allergic reaction. To learn the correct dose for this condition, speak with your doctor or family pharmacist.
If you are allergic to the cold, do not take it lightly. Avoid exposing your body to extreme temperature variations, such as diving in cold water after taking a dry sauna or steam bath, since, though rare, the allergic reaction could cause a life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Some people will need a prescription for an adrenaline injector.
If you think you may be allergic to the cold, you will need to consult an allergist, who will administer the ice cube test. This test consists in placing on your forearm an ice cube wrapped in plastic for 5 to 20 minutes. If a welt or rash appears within 15 minutes after applying the ice, the test is positive. The faster the reaction occurs, the more severe the allergy to the cold.
Do you have questions about your allergies? Speak with your family pharmacist for answers and information.