Saskatoon woman allergic to cold says she has 'learned to live with it'

Saskatoon resident Marlyne Wight has a condition that makes her skin red and itchy and her body swell up when exposed to the cold.

Marlyne Wight breaks out in hives when skin gets chilly

Saskatoon resident Marlyne Wight has been living with cold urticaria (cold hives) for 30 years. Allergic to the cold, she says the best way she deals with it is to bundle up whenever she goes outdoors in the winter. (David Shield/CBC News)

Try living in Saskatoon, where temperatures in the winter can dip below –20 C, when you're allergic to the cold.

For 30 years, Marlyne Wight has been living with cold urticaria (or cold hives), a condition that makes her skin red and itchy, and her body swell up like a balloon when exposed to cold temperatures.

When she tells people about her allergy, no one believes her.

You just move on. There are worse things in life.- Marlyne Wight

"They go, 'Yeah, so am I,'" she said. "But I really am allergic to the cold. I break out in hives."

Wight first noticed there was a problem when her face turned red and swelled whenever she would walk to work during winter. She also would break out in itchy bumps. Her dermatologist immediately knew the condition.

"I was noticing even with a Popsicle, my lips would swell," she said. "Or scraping carrots under water, my fingers would swell."

Why live in Saskatchewan then?

"Everybody asks that," she said. "I've learned to live with it. And it's family: That's what keeps me here."

Although medications (including antihistamines) are sometimes recommended, Wight has learned that the best strategy is to stay indoors as much as possible in the winter. When she does go out, she covers up — wearing high boots and long coats.

"Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, learn what you need to do to prevent it," she said. "You just move on. There are worse things in life."

Most cases disappear in 5 years

Cold urticaria isn't common, but it's not unheard of for allergy and dermatology experts to deal with such cases.

Allergies, on the whole, are often misunderstood.- Dr. David Fischer, president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology

Cold urticaria is set off when there's a sharp decrease in temperature — everything from swimming to a cool breeze.

"I do warn the patients, when I've pointed out the diagnosis to them, that other people will 'find them crazy,'" said Dr. David Fischer, president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. "Allergies, on the whole, are often misunderstood."

Fischer said cold urticaria is triggered when antibodies in the blood are set off when exposed to frigid temperatures.

"Your body normally fights off bacteria and viruses and parasites, but in this instance, instead of attacking something useful, it latches onto allergy cells in the skin," he said. "Then, the presence of cold turns them on and, therefore, one gets hives."

Fischer said cold urticaria can be serious in some cases, especially when swimming in cold water.

"We always warn [patients] to be very careful in that scenario," he said. "We had a young person who didn't know he had it and was involved in a polar bear swim. He barely survived."

Fischer said the majority of times, cold urticaria goes away after five or six years, and it's unusual for it to continue for three decades, as in Wright's case.

With files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning