Allergic to Cold: Adapting to Life With a Mysterious Condition

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Though many aren't fond of stepping outside into the cold winter weather, for some it's a life-threatening task.

The condition is called cold urticaria, and it manifests itself as a chronic reactive skin disorder.

While it is unknown how many people are affected by the allergy, the rare condition can cause hives, swelling, and, in severe instances, anaphylactic shock.

Six-year-old Jacob Russell of Brampton, Ontario, has been living with the condition since March of 2012.

Jake's parents, Jeremy and Jenny, noticed that Jake's feet had begun turning purple, and he would break out in hives on his short walk home from school.

"We rushed him to the hospital a couple of times after he got home or when we noticed his purple hands and feet from being in the basement, but by the time we got to the hospital he had warmed up and no one would be able to give us an answer," Jeremy said.

Those who suffer severely from the condition often cannot go outside during the winter months of the year, swim in cool waters or even consume a drink with ice cubes.

While the cause in most people is unknown, the cold triggers mast cells to release histamine, which results in an allergic reaction.

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The rare condition is most often treated with a cocktail of antihistamines and an epi-pen for emergency usage, but, for many, a diagnosis does not come quickly.

"It was Jenny's research that discovered what Jake had through relentless reading online. We printed it all off and took it to our family doctor to see if we were right. We finally got into an allergist in May 2012 to get a 'formal' diagnosis," he said.

For Jake, temperatures under 50 degrees F ignite a reaction, and so can even higher temperatures when wind is present.

"It used to really affect our life, because no one at the school understood this issue, and Jenny would be at the school during recess to make sure he was safe," Jeremy said.

"There were times Jake would be outside without a hat, mitts or even his jacket done up on days we sent a note that he isn't to go outside. It is hard for him to know that he is different and can't play like the other kids can."

The Russell family eventually relocated to Pensacola, Fla., to mitigate Jake's reactions and allow him to live more comfortably. In Pensacola, only 10 days per year drop below 40 degrees F on average.

"I would hate to have to think what our life would be like if we were still in Canada," Jeremy said.

While the medical community has little information to provide the Russells, they have found a community within the Cold Urticaria Foundation, a non-profit that joins together those with the puzzling diagnosis.

Dawn Taylor, a Canada-native, launched the foundation after her two-year-old daughter was diagnosed several years ago.

With nowhere else to turn and many unanswered questions, Taylor created a website for sufferers and quickly received emails from more than 450 people facing the same problem.

Taylor continues to raise awareness to the issue, urging the medical community to take notice.

"I'm trying my damnedest. I'm sending out mass emails to every doctor, allergist, immunologist, you name it," she said. "I'm trying to get in touch with somebody. And if I can find somebody who says you find the funds, I'll do the research, then I'll find a way to raise the funds."

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