Girl on Fire (aka Allergic to Exercise)

Run interrupted It happened again this morning. Like I do so often, I pulled on my sneakers and went for a run. It started out beautifully – cool, sunny weather, an empty park, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers blasting through my earbuds. But less than ten minutes later, it all went wrong.

First, a flush of warmth spread throughout my midsection. Within seconds, this turned into a hot flush, and my skin began to itch. As I continued to jog around the park, the sensation intensified, until I was overwhelmed with discomfort. It felt as though my body was on fire, yet excruciatingly itchy at the same time. (Cue Music: Girl on Fire – Alicia Keys).

Girl on fire

By the time I made it back to my car, I was in tears, covered with hives, feeling as though I was being attacked by a swarm of flaming mosquitoes. I sank into the driver’s seat and sat there, unmoving, for several minutes, until the symptoms gradually subsided and I could relax.

I know what you are wondering. What the heck happened during that run? Obviously, that was not normal. Well, it is something that began when I was in my early twenties. When the weird symptoms first began, I described them to my doctor. “Huh,” he said. “That’s weird.”

Gee. Thanks, doc.

Over time, I sought the opinions of three more physicians, including a dermatologist. One doctor even sent me to the hospital for a treadmill test in order to induce the reaction. No one had any idea how to diagnose me. No one had any recommendations for treatment, other than Benadryl and avoidance of exercise. Since Benadryl made me feel like I was swimming in syrup throughout the day, I began to avoid exercise. This was so hard to do! I was so athletic. I have always loved to play sports, ride my bike, and dance around my living room. Suddenly, I was forced to do nothing more than occasional slow walks around the block. Medical Mystery

And then, thanks to the amazing powers of Google, I began to come across accounts of other people suffering from similar symptoms. And behold! Suddenly my weird condition had a name: Cholinergic Urticaria. An allergic reaction to exercise. Seriously. Apparently, whenever my body core begins to heat up, I suffer a hypersensitive response that does not stop until I stop moving. For some people, this response can even lead to anaphylactic shock. Luckily, I have never experienced that reaction. And luckily, I finally found a doctor who was familiar with the problem and directed me toward THE wonder drug for people with cholinergic urticaria: Zyrtec. Hooray for Zyrtec! God bless the makers of Zyrtec!

No one knows for sure what causes cholinergic urticaria. Doctors and medical researchers have various theories – genetics, environment, food allergies, auto-immune reactions. No one knows exactly how to treat it, either, since not everyone responds well to antihistamines or steroids. “Avoid activities that may lead to a reaction,” the medical community recommends. In other words, avoid sports, avoid hot showers, avoid sex, and avoid exercise of any kind, especially in cold weather. Ha! Thankfully, I do respond well to antihistamines, and so long as I take my wonder pill every day, I do not have to limit my exercise. I can run, play soccer, and ride my bike as much as I want. But if I slip up and do not take my pill (like today), then the consequences are severe.

Many sufferers of cholinergic urticaria are told to avoid exercise

Many sufferers of cholinergic urticaria are told to avoid exercise

Well, now that I once again have Zyrtec coursing through my veins, battling histamines like a well-trained army, I can now move once again. Perhaps I will go and finish that run, or turn up the Red Hot Chili Peppers and dance around my living room.

Additional Reading on Cholinergic Urticaria:

http://www.cigna.com/individualandfamilies/health-and-well-being/hw/medical-topics/urticaria-cholinergic-nord249.html

http://www.aafp.org/afp/2001/1015/p1367.html

http://www.cholinergicurticaria.net/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20086478

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6169753

http://running.about.com/od/illnessesandrunning/ss/embarrassing_6.htm

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2 responses to “Girl on Fire (aka Allergic to Exercise)

  1. Thanks for sharing! Ha – we had the same idea for a blog. The first time I broke out in hives, it literally felt like someone had lit a match and threw it on me. I also respond pretty well to Zyrtec, thankfully. Most recently, I discovered that the key to drastically reducing the burning and the hives for me is to sweat every day. It’s great incentive to workout! I no longer run the way I used to, however – running seems to trigger hives the most. http://girl-on-fire.me

    • Same here, but still I try and run at least once per week. Swimming and water exercise also trigger my attacks pretty quickly – sometimes within 5 minutes. I excercise often, but every now and then, the hives will still show up without warning. Zyrtec is my miracle drug, but I’ve learned that it’s very important not to skip a day, or surprise – torture!

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