An allergy to exercise may sound like a convenient excuse, but for one British woman diagnosed with the condition —- it’s a dangerous reality.
For British mother-of-four, Kasia Beaver, her condition symptoms in different ways. Her eyes swell shut, she breaks out in hives, and her throat closes. And if her heart beats too fast and she sweats, it can lead to a potentially fatal allergic reaction.
“It’s terrifying, especially if I’m alone with the children,” says Beaver.
The 33-year-old is just one of a few people who suffer from a life-threatening allergic reaction to exercise called exercise-induced angioedema — or EIA. The condition is so rare, there are currently no estimates for the number of sufferers.
Dr. Dennis Cardone, a sports medicine specialist at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, says the exercise allergy is a real condition.
“Typically we see it in combination with another type of allergy, usually to food or hot weather,” Cardone added.
He explained that people with the condition can often eat peanuts or shellfish with no reaction and they may also be able to exercise with no problem. But if they eat peanuts or shellfish before they exercise, it can trigger an attack.
Research into EIA has not revealed any connection with exercise-induced asthma or any other type of breathing or exercise-related disorders.
Cardone said the immune systems of sufferers mistakes a harmless substance for a dangerous intruder, producing antibodies in response. These antibodies then trigger special mast cells to produce chemical histamines that react with the body and produce the physical symptoms of an allergy.
Although an allergy to exercise isn’t generally considered life-threatening, in Beaver’s case it is. Doctors have told her that just running for a bus or chasing after her children could kill her.
She suffered her first attack when she was in her early 20s, before she became pregnant with her first child, now 12. At first, she thought it was just an allergic reaction to a new eye shadow she had bought, but after she stopped using it her eyes remained swollen for three days.
Recalling one instance when she went to the gym and worked out, Beaver says that her eyes felt tight afterwards. Taken to the nearest emergency room by her mother, doctors there prescribed antihistamines but the reactions continued and became more severe over time.
“I was ice skating with my husband when I had a really bad attack. I had to use an epiPen to bring the swelling down,” she said. “It took me years to realize that exercise was the trigger.”
Doctors were bewildered by Beaver’s allergic reactions. Finally after seeing one specialist after another, she was diagnosed with EIA. She says putting a name to her condition was a “relief” and proof that she wasn’t going mad.
Today, she takes an antihistamine called Ketotifen. Now, for the first time in 10 years, she can walk to the park without having an attack. Even though she can’t exercise for a long time — her allergy can even be triggered by hoovering — Beaver has joined a weight loss group in an effort to get into shape.
One of the most common reactions she gets from others is disbelief. “People don’t believe me when I tell them I’m allergic to exercise. They think it’s just an excuse to be lazy,” said the young mother.
Her body, however, knows different.