Look at the girl in the above picture. She is having herself a nice, joyful day in the rain – because who lets a little bit of cold weather stop their fun?
When I tell people that I’m allergic to the cold, the response I get usually involves an eye roll and a “Yeah, sure and I’m allergic to Brussels sprouts.”
Cold urticaria is a rare and admittedly weird allergy to cold temperatures. Apparently, “cold” is also a term used rather loosely when it comes to cold urticaria, seeing as I grew up on a Caribbean island with an average temperature equivalent to hell’s.
Although I rarely get a reaction anymore, the allergy first showed up when I was in kindergarten. I would break out in hives whenever I went in swimming pools. Since I was relegated to sitting at the edge of the pool at many a pool party, itching my arms and legs, my doctor decided that the only logical answer was that I was allergic to chlorine.
Made sense to me: if I didn’t go in pools, I didn’t get hives.
Until I’d go to the grocery store, that is.
I liked accompanying my mum when she went on her weekly shopping trips so I could sit in the shopping cart and sneak junk food – Pringles, in particular – into her health-conscious cart while she wasn’t looking. However, trips to the grocery store were getting more and more inconvenient, since by the end of them I would be covered in hives and extremely uncomfortable.
My mum was bewildered. “They must be washing their shopping carts with chlorine,” she finally said, as we were checking out one day. I scratched my arm and shrugged, then used sympathy points to get Mum to buy the Pringles I’d snagged earlier.
The next time we visited, she asked someone at the grocery store if they washed the carts with chlorine. Although she asked politely, she thought she already knew the answer.
“Chlorine?” The employee said, eyebrows arched. “No, we don’t wash our buggies with chlorine.”
“Are you sure?” prodded Mum. She tugged at my puffy red arm. “My daughter’s allergic to it and she always gets a reaction when she comes into the store.”
“I’m positive,” said the employee. I don’t know if he was sure that they didn’t wash the buggies with chlorine, but I’m pretty certain the store didn’t wash the shopping carts at all, which is why he was so surprised by the question in the first place.
“Fine,” said my mum. When I went to push the grocery cart, she stopped me. “Don’t touch it. Maybe if you don’t touch the buggy, you won’t get a reaction.”
Lo and behold, since I was allergic to the air conditioning of the supermarket, not chlorine, I walked out just as miserable and hive-y as usual.
“Did you touch the cart?” Mum admonished. “I told you not to touch the cart.”
“I didn’t!” I swore. Then, “I’m not sure if I want to go to the grocery store anymore.”
But when your mother is a teacher, she values the scientific method and has a tendency to use her children as lab rats in her experiments. The Kenza Allergy Test was not yet complete. Not to mention, by the time the next grocery trip rolled around, I wanted more Pringles. (This is what happens when you raise kids in a house where you serve things like spinach boiled in vinegar for dinner – you raise them to put themselves through air-conditioned hell just for a chance to taste something decent once a week).
The next trip to the supermarket involved me not touching anything. No doors, no food, and God forbid my arm graze a counter. My days of joyful buggy-riding were over. I did still get chips out of the deal, though. Unfortunately, I also got hives.
Unfortunately for the supermarket employees, they got quite a lesson on endangering public health, courtesy of my mother. She may even have threatened to never shop there again. You can’t really blame her – she was in full mother hen mode, feathers fluffed out, little chick all red and splotchy.
We finally went in to the doctor and told him about my body’s strange aversion to pools and grocery stores. He finally had a lightbulb moment. “Do you guys use air conditioning at your house?” he asked.
“No,” said Mum. Electricity was not a sure thing in the DR at this time, with blackouts happening several times a week and power bills skyrocketing. Dad got mad at Eric or I if we left a light switch on when we left the room – asking to turn the AC on would be tantamount to asking if we could put the cat in the microwave.
“What about at school?”
“Hmm,” my doctor said. “She might be allergic to the cold.”
The test for cold urticaria is relatively simple: you hold an ice cube in place on someone’s skin. If it puffs up and goes red, ta-da! Your body is one of the weird, rebellious creatures that refuses to enjoy winter wonderlands. Congratulations, you just won one of the shittiest genetic lottery prizes ever.
On our next trip to the supermarket, I took a sweater.
And Mum? She kept her mouth shut.