Did you just read the title and go “huh? How can someone be allergic to exercise?” Well if you did, you would not be alone. I just find that it is easier to drop that bombshell than use the technical term, cholinergic urticaria. And, before you read any further, here is my disclaimer:
While I do have training as a CPR / First Aid Instructor which covers initial response to emergencies, I am NOT a medical professional. Everything in my post is based upon personal experience and information given to me. None of this should serve as a way to diagnose or treat medical issues. Additionally, links in this post may be affiliate links.
Allergic to Exercise ~ What is Cholinergic Urticaria?
Cholinergic urticaria is basically hives that are the result of acetylcholine being released. Normally, acetylcholine aids the nervous system with the transmission of signals. However, someone experiencing cholinergic urticaria has the acetylcholine stimulating mast cells to release chemicals which then resemble an allergic response. Exercise, hot showers, sweating and anxiety trigger the release of acetylcholine producing hives (small bumps) surrounded by redness.
I found the following books on the subject, but have not read them yet.
Allergic to Exercise ~ My Experience
This is something that I’ve struggled with for a while now. It started up almost 2 years ago when I noticed hives forming after a long, sweaty workout. I figured it was just from irritation. Then, some people started to suggest maybe my daily Shakeology was to blame and my body was continually trying to ‘detox’ from something. Since it was just those longer workouts, I went to shorter ones thinking it would stop. Sharing this ‘allergic to exercise’ statement with friends had me laughing along with them that it was the perfect excuse to NOT exercise or at least tone down what I was doing. As you can see, I wasn’t smiling when a workout was done when I could feel the hives popping out all over.
Eventually, the sporadic hives turned into hives all the time when I exercised, even after 15 minutes of yoga! What had me stop exercising completely this past fall was when I started to have my mouth feel different, too. By then, I felt like my immune system was overloaded. The hives started coming with stress of any kind and I walked around with a continual itchy feeling around my nose and mouth. This alone had my regular doctor writing a script for an EpiPen just in case it morphed into full anaphylaxis.
Finally, I was convinced I needed to see an allergist. I have had environmental allergies (dust, pollen, furry creatures) since I was a young child. I had to wait a little while to get in and then had them do a full screening to see if anything new (besides the sweat thing) had developed. Sure enough, I’m not allergic to birch trees (which are all around us in Alaska) but thankfully had some molds and a few other things that didn’t light up like a Christmas tree on my back. Desensitization was presented as an option which I’m still considering as the boys hate that mom is allergic to any furry pet they’d want and having allergy issues year round really stinks.
The good news from the allergist about my being allergic to exercise is that it usually goes away after a few years (average of 5 to 7 years for length of problems.) The bad news is that it can become bad enough to need that EpiPen.
If you suspect you are experiencing something similar to what I have, definitely make an appointment to get a proper diagnosis. (They did a methacholine skin test to what happens during exercise ~ increased body temperature and sweat.) However, I thought I’d share what I was told to do.
Allergic to Exercise ~ My Approach
1. Take allergy medicine daily. Zyrtec is what was prescribed for me as it is supposedly better with minimizing the itching from hives as well as frequency. I’ll admit to being terrible about doing this, so I’ll still get hives when I exercise and then take the medicine right after. I think I just need to make it a morning habit.
2. Avoid triggers, when possible. Avoiding physical activity is NOT practical and every doctor confirmed that I needed to get back into a regular routine. I just need to do other things to minimize and manage it. However, I can adjust the temperature of any bathing so that the heat is not a trigger and I can wear layers that can be removed if I get too warm.
2. Never exercise alone. Anaphylaxis is NOT a joking matter. Even with an EpiPen, you need to get advanced medical care. Having someone with you does not ensure a reaction won’t happen, rather you now have someone to help (call 911, grab your EpiPen, etc.)
3. Keep an EpiPen with you at all times. I laughed when the pharmacist said my primary care doc had written the prescription for multiples of the EpiPen. The pharmacy only sells them as a 2 pack, which I all I bought. I keep one in my purse so I have it when I leave the house and one in my bedroom. Do NOT leave it in your vehicle as high and low temperatures can have an averse effect. (Note ~ the pharmacy tech told me to register for a coupon with the company before buying my prescription as my insurance did not fully cover the cost. Actually, I had serious sticker shock at the amount I was billed for that 2 pack. The coupon brought my final cost down to around $30.)
4. Consider diet modifications. Research in other countries has shown there are some foods which are more histamine rich or histamine releasing than others. So, some people have elected to minimize or eliminate them from a person’s diet to help calm the body. I have NOT adopted the changes so far because I love too many of these foods (giving up chocolate is NOT going to happen for me!) However, I am seriously considering if they might be impacting my body with inflammation and keeping me from flushing away the weight gain from the past year. (Read more about diet change experiences on this nonmedical website for cholinergic uticaria.)
5. Take Vitamin D daily and support thyroid function. Both of these are suspected to have a role in cholinergic urticaria. Vitamin D was something I was already started to do as Alaskans tend to have low levels due to lack of sunlight for much of the year. The allergist said to take it year round rather than just in the summer. My thyroid was tested by my general practitioner and fell within ‘normal’ range, but is something I am investigating further.
So, I am trudging along now and have added daily exercise back into my routine. I have to modify the workouts done with my husband as my body had a real backslide this past year. We are doing a new round of Beachbody’s P90X3 at the moment. And, I still get hives. But, I am more confident now knowing what the problem is and how to manage it.
Do you or someone in your life struggle with allergy issues?
How do you overcome obstacles to fitting exercise into your day?