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I am from the blisteringly cold Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan, where 250 inches of snow per season is the norm. My childhood was filled with snow, negative temperatures, and ice; I grew up in the cold. I figure skated avidly from the age of three. But my devotion to the chilly sport and fond relationship with winter weather came to a screeching halt after my diagnosis in November of 2020.
Here’s my story: what it’s like to be literally allergic to the cold.
During a routine figure skating rehearsal, I noticed red, itchy bumps forming on my legs and hands. I didn’t think too much of it until the next day, when I opened my window to get some fresh air, and the hives reappeared. Occurrences like this continued, but I wasn’t positive about the cause until two weeks later when I used an ice pack on my leg. Hives immediately formed in the exact shape of the ice pack on my skin. I saw a doctor the next day, who diagnosed my condition with an ice cube on my forearm.
I have a rare form of cold urticaria. My body reacts to cold exposure as though it were an allergen. For some people, this reaction can be minor, and lead only to itchy hives. My severity level is unfortunately much worse. While I do get skin welts and hives, I am also susceptible to anaphylaxis, shock, hypotension, and hypothermia. If I were to fall into the Charles River, it could be fatal. Not only does my body react to the cold, but it retains it. Even as my body reheats, or moves into a warm environment, the ice in my veins remains. I have to actively warm my skin, either through flaming showers or layers of blankets, to free myself from the cold.
Anything less than my internal body temperature can cause a reaction. The weather outside may not always seem cold, but it can still give me hives. Lower temperatures are of course more dangerous, but even the warmer days can be a struggle. Sometimes, I venture out in full winter gear on a “warm” day, collecting stares and laughter from people as I pass.
Now, I carry an EpiPen and inhaler with me everywhere I go. The medical alert tag around my neck displays in bold letters: COLD ANAPHYLAXIS. I show up to lectures in a bright yellow snowsuit and sit through discussion sections clutching hand warmers. I get strange stares and whispered comments frequently. I do my best to ignore them. It’s not always so easy, though.
It’s one thing to live with the physical realities of my condition — the psychological toll is another deal entirely. Trying to explain why I can’t catch an Annenberg brunch with friends on a cold day. Zooming in to classes when it’s raining. The “I can’t go out with you tonight, it is too cold for my body to handle.” Sleeping through club meetings on the weekends because I had to take an emergency super-antihistamine that knocked me out for 16 hours. Cooping myself up in my dorm to wait out two days of a blizzard. The looks of disbelief when I tell people, “I am literally allergic to the cold.” I understand the doubt. Sometimes, I can’t believe it either.
I don’t know if this condition will ever go away, but I don’t have much hope. Doctors still have no idea why this hit me so abruptly after years of living in the cold. There is no cure, and the treatments only add to the psychological toll of my abnormal life. All I can do is adapt and surround myself with people who understand.
The next time you look out your window to a frosty Cambridge day, you may mull over grabbing a sweater or jacket, or dread the frigid walk to class. On these days, I wake up and wonder if today’s the day I freeze to death — literally.
Gracia A. Perala ’25, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Straus Hall.
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