It’s True — You Really Can Be Allergic to the Cold

What to do if cold urticaria gives you hives
thermometer through frosty window

For many, those frigid, cool-you-to-the-bone temperatures get old after a while. You might even start joking around that you’re allergic to the cold and can’t wait for warm temperatures to begin.

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All jokes aside, some people really do have an allergy to cold temperatures.

“If someone has a cold allergy, every time they go out in certain temperatures, they’ll break out in hives in any of the areas that’s exposed to the temperatures,” says allergist Sandra Hong, MD. “If there are low wind chill factors, they definitely can be affected by that.”

How do I know if I have this allergy?

This cold allergy, also called cold urticaria, often causes an itchy rash, redness, swelling and hives on areas of uncovered skin that have contact with cold air, water or cold surfaces. The reaction usually occurs within five to 10 minutes after exposure to the cold and can last for about one to two hours, according to the Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center

Females are more likely to have it than males, and in some cases, a cold allergy often goes away after a few years. Severe cases – such as when somebody swims in icy water – can lead to fainting, shock and even death.

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“If individuals are out for long periods of time, or they’re in very cold temperatures or have a lot of skin that’s exposed, they can actually have these allergic reactions,” says Dr. Hong. “They can be life-threatening, too.”

If you see your allergist or dermatologist, they will be able to test your skin to see if you have a reaction. The American Academy of Dermatology Association notes that a dermatologist might place a plastic bag with ice cubes on your forearm to see how your skin reacts to the cold. 

An uncommon condition

A true sensitivity to cold is rare, but most cases are found in colder climates. Although children and young people are typical sufferers, just about anybody can develop the condition.

“Anyone can have it at any point in their life,” says Dr. Hong. “The good news is that a majority of people who have it will see it will go away in five years.”

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If you have a cold allergy, you can take an antihistamine to relieve your symptoms. Remember to also carry epinephrine in case of an emergency, which you inject into your outer thigh. Be sure to ask your allergist or immunologist which medication would work best for you. 

The best way to make sure you don’t suffer from a cold allergy is to try to avoid cold temperatures altogether. However, if you live in the colder parts of the world, you know how difficult it is to completely avoid plummeting temperatures. If you have to venture outside, remember to bundle up completely with a hat, gloves, scarf, boots and layers of clothing to make sure you’re kept warm. 

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