Does your skin get really itchy when you run, bike or lift weights? If it does, you could be suffering from an allergic reaction to exercises. A few people are actually allergic to exercise, and in very rare cases, a sweaty workout could be enough to kill them.
Damaris Kitwe, an exercise enthusiast, looks forward to the end of a long day at work so that she can hit the gym. As she steps into the changing room to wear her gear, she swallows a tablet to manage an allergic reaction that worsens whenever she begins to exercise.
Damaris is hypersensitive to heat or sweat. She has a condition known as cholinergic urticaria, which is an itchy rash that appears all over her body due to a higher body temperature from sweating, exercise or hot showers.
The reaction begins as a small rash on her neck similar to miniature bumps and it later spreads to her back, stomach and the legs.
The tingling sensation distracts her, making her exercising uncomfortable. However, this link as an allergic reaction has become fertile ground for discussion by scientists. Medical case studies are yet to find evidence that supports that it is caused by being allergic to your sweat.
Dr Gerald W Volcheck and Dr James T C Li who have published a paper on the condition titled ‘Exercise-Induced Urticaria and Anaphylaxis,’ say that the condition can also be triggered by the food you eat before exercise. They also found out that in rare cases, it runs in families.
“Cholinergic urticaria induced by exercise usually manifests approximately six minutes after onset of exercise and increases for approximately 12 to 25 minutes. Generally, urticaria begins on the upper part of the thorax and neck but may occur anywhere on the body,” read excerpts of the research published on Mayo clinic proceedings publication.
Closer home, consultant physician Esther Dindi, who is also passionate about fitness, says Damaris is not allergic to sweat, but has a condition that is also known as hives and it has various triggers, including food allergies.
“The itch is caused by the body heating up through exercise. When you have this condition, histamine is released which produces a very prickly and itchy feeling in the skin ,” said Dr Dindi who also runs a fitness and wellness campaign under ‘Doctor Fitness’ brand.
Urticaria comes from the Latin word ‘urtica’ which means stinging nettle, which describes the feeling that a person has when they are have this allergic reaction to their sweat.
These heat-raising activities trigger your sweat glands to produce a chemical that causes an itchy feel, she said adding that the most notorious physical stimuli of this condition includes such as pressure, cold, heat, exercise or sun exposure
WHO suspends funding Afya House activities
“Though the itchy feeling goes away within an hour, it is important to seek medical advice to understand the triggers,” said Dindi.
“Antihistamines are prescribed to decrease the uncomfortable feeling. They block the effect of histamine, a chemical in the skin that can cause allergy symptoms or anti-itch salves, to ease the symptoms,” said Dindi in an interview with the Metropolitan.
For some people, cold compresses on the already affected area does the magic by relieving the burning sensation.
According to Dindi, anti-allergic medicines can be taken prior to exercise, to minimise the itchy feeling, thus enabling the person to have a stress-free exercise.
In extreme reactions, swelling of the face, throat, fingers and toes can happen. In other cases, nausea, abdominal cramps and diarrhoea can also happen. It is more common in men than their female counterparts because they sweat more during a workout, Dindi noted.
Skin specialist Evanson Kamuri says the condition has no known cure though it can be effectively managed through medications or lifestyle changes. This enables a person to lead a normal lifestyle enjoying exercise and all other activities that trigger it.
Dr Kamuri notes that persons with this conditions have no overt signs until they are exposed to an increase in temperature.
“The itch can begin on the wrists, hands, neck, face or the entire body. It depends on the part of the body exposed to a lot of heat,” said Kamuri.
Light therapy, also known as photo therapy, is one of the available options to treat this condition, however it can only be given by a dermatologist who measures the exposure to Ultra violet light.
“Sometimes, we use steroids to treat cholinergic urticaria. However, this is a reserve for severe cases,” said Kamuri,
Kamuri also recommends other non-medicated ways to treat this skin reaction.
“Wear absorbent clothing made out of cotton that will leave your body comfortable and cool. Overdressing worsens the situation,” said Kamuri.
Dr Volcheck and his colleague provide a possible remedy for the prevention of urticaria that is triggered by food.
However this can only be established by eliminating some food types from diets or taking medications to prevent the hives or reduce the severity of symptoms.
“When implicated, elimination of all food 6 hours before exercise and avoidance of the medication are the easiest strategies. A food diary may be helpful if the patient is unable to recall what a person ate before exercise” he states.
And if symptoms persist, it is important to modify exercise by reducing the intensity of the workouts like swimming and walking which are less demanding exercises.
The writer is health and medicine editor at The Conversation Africa