A 17-year-old from Mapleton, Utah has been diagnosed with aquagenic urticarial, meaning that she has what is often mistaken for an allergy to water. Alexandra Allen first experienced a severe reaction to water when she was 12, breaking out in hives while swimming in a hotel pool with her family while on vacation. At first, Allen assumed she was allergic to chlorine or other water treatment chemicals, but that theory was proven false when she broke out again after swimming in a lake known for its clean water.
When Allen was 15, she found a website that described aquagenic urticarial, and discovered that her symptoms matched. She showed the website to her dermatologist, who ran several tests, including one where Allen soaked in a tub of water.
“He brought in a few other doctors and they just sat around in awe,” she told ABC News. The skin is the largest organ in the human body, so it was no surprise that exposing it to an allergen felt “like torture.”
Allen has had to find creative ways to avoid contact with water. She showers no more than three times a week, always for short periods of time and with cold water. She avoids sweating and humid environments – a humanitarian aid trip to Cambodia proved such climates to be problematic. Allen has even become a vegetarian in an attempt to reduce the oils in her skin.
Only 50 cases of aquagenic urticarial have been reported in medical literature, and the exact causes of the condition are unknown. One theory is that water dissolves antigens causing the immune system to produce antibodies, and the dissolved antigens are absorbed by the skin to trigger the allergic reaction. Other doctors suggest that an allergic response is triggered by toxins produced by the patient’s sweat glands. Aquagenic urticarial is thought to be degenerative, and Allen may later become unable to drink water.
Though it can be difficult to avoid water, Allen has remained positive, stating that she is no longer expected to wash the dishes.