What It’s Like to Be Allergic to Water


(Photo-Illustration: Photos: Corbis)

By Alexa Tsoulis-Reay

In 1963, a 15-year-old girl presented herself to a pair of dermatologists in Pennsylvania complaining that she’d broken out in angry, red lesions after a session of waterskiing. That first mysterious outbreak became a trend: Blotchy, itchy hives would pop up all over her limbs every time she took a bath, went swimming, or perspired heavily. The doctors conducted a series of tests to rule out obvious possible triggers like cold and, using a hand towel soaked in distilled water, identified a condition called aquagenic urticaria: Sufferers are so sensitive to pure water it causes them to erupt in hives within minutes of exposure. The doctors were perplexed, noting in their report that “water is the most trusted compound in the universe … we bathe in it, we drink it, we live by it, asking of it only purity. Hence it is with difficulty that one comes to realize that some individuals react adversely to simple contact with water.”

Related: What It’s Like to Be Single With Tourette Syndrome

The condition remains as rare as it is mysterious. Douglas L. Powell, clinical professor in dermatology at the University of Utah Hospital, is their unofficial “hive expert.” He’s seen only two cases of aquagenic urticaria in the last 15 years and notes that there are fewer than 100 cases reported in the medical literature. Given the minuscule sample size, few trends have been identified. We do know that it appears to be more common in women and is likely to commence during puberty. Some believe that it’s really a hypersensitivity to trace chemicals in water, but, as Dr. Powell argues, the current test used to diagnose the condition exposes patients to water that’s totally chemical-free, and sufferers still break out in hives. There are —> Read More