Running through urticaria

It started in November 2015.

I'd had a pretty crazy year, both good and bad. They say stress is a trigger, among a million other things. Feeling run down, I took a nap one day and there it was when I woke up: a small welt on the back of my right thigh.

This is only the beginning of the story. We stay on this chapter for a few months, bemused by the occasional small, itchy welt that came and went. One on my forearm, then gone, one on my knee, then gone...

Then, around January/February, it exploded. Something was in the balance, wobbling precariously for weeks before finally tipping over the edge. My body erupted in hives; burning, painful, itchy hives which spread over me like wildfire. It felt like fire. And there was no escaping it.

To top it off, my face began to swell - my eyes and lips especially, but also one side of my face and inside my mouth. Lumps like golf balls appeared on the soles of my feet, making it painful to walk.

The instant assumption is that you're having a severe allergic reaction to something. Peanuts or shellfish, maybe. Except there are no immediate symptoms after eating or touching common allergies - the swelling and hives would randomly appear in one place, disappear, only to pop up elsewhere. At its peak I had a continuous cycle of welts all across my body.

Unbearable doesn't cut it. In a flare up, it is that debilitating you literally cannot function. Studies have found urticaria can have the same negative impact on peoples' lives as heart disease. I had to stock up on cotton clothing and wear them inside out, because the seams would hurt my skin so much. I was scared to eat anything, so didn't. Sitting hurt, lying hurt. Everything hurt.

Except running.

After various tests and hospital appointments, I was told I had chronic urticaria (hives), angioedema (swelling in the deeper layers of tissue), delayed pressure urticaria (DPU) and dermographism (hives caused by touching or 'writing' on the skin). Some people never find out what the cause is, and live with it daily for years. I'm thankful that, with a cocktail of drugs and a low salicylate diet, things have calmed down. I cannot comprehend how anyone can survive this horrible condition for so long, and I live in fear of it returning.

'Skin writing' hives (c) Urticaria Treatment YouTube


Suspected causes are far-reaching, depending on who you talk to. Delayed pressure such as tight clothes, heat, cold, exercise, food, drink, plants, stress, sunlight, drugs, water, touching/rubbing skin, salicylates (something, I would discover, which was in most of the healthy foods I was eating).

While many suffer due to exercise, running was my one place of relief. After a painful, sleepless night on the sofa (or, quite frequently, the cool hard floor), I would get up around 4.30-5am and take a gentle jog around the nearby dock. I would take it easy, usually because my clothes and shoes were so uncomfortable, often because I felt so sorry for myself. But something miraculous would happen: the pain went away.

I have no idea why. Maybe it was just good old endorphins, or maybe the simple act of distraction. Either way, I would return home with a significant reduction in welts and discomfort. They would return soon enough, usually after showering, but for that small window I had relief and a light at the end of the tunnel.

It's been a few months since my last outbreak but I continue to explore what happened and how I can prevent it happening again. I feel for those suffering daily and still talk to new-found friends on the Chronic Urticaria Support Facebook page.

Almost a year on from those early warning signs, who knows where this story will end. If nothing else, the experience has brought me even closer to running. I think every runner can relate to this magic. Through it all, running has been a constant; something I can not only turn to in dark times, but has the power to heal, restore and bring hope.  

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