COLUMBUS, O.H. — Sometimes snowbirds joke that they move from the north to the south for the winter because they're allergic to the cold. But some people are literally allergic to the cold. The scientific term for it is cold urticaria.
"So cold urticaria is a fancy word for hives that result from our exposure to the cold," said Dr. Kara Wada, an allergist with The Ohio State Wexner Medical Center.
As the skin warms back up, skin cells become irritated. That triggers an immune response and hives start to form.
Scientists don't know the exact cause of cold urticaria, but it typically happens to people who suffer from chronic hives. Research shows around 3%. Dr. Wada estimates that translates to about 1in 1,000 people. Young adults and those with underlying health conditions, like hepatitis or cancer, are the most at risk. In rare cases cold urticaria can be inherited. But the condition isn't always for life.
"There are some folks that will have it for many, many years, maybe for a lifetime. But there are also folks who will outgrow this, or the symptoms will vanish as mysteriously as they appeared," said Dr. Wada.
As for how to manage symptoms, the most obvious is to avoid cold weather. But bundling up, mixed with some medications, can also do the trick if that's not possible.
"We also will tell people to use long-acting, less sedating antihistamines to help control symptoms and typically patients will be prescribed epinephrine pens if this is something that occurs more frequently," said Dr. Wada.