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What's Up Magazine

Allergic to Exercise? (Yes, It's A Thing)

Jun 20, 2018 12:00AM

By Kelsey Casselbury

An intense workout session can leave a person breathless and panting—but what if it’s actually a severe allergic reaction rather than hardcore dedication to fitness? Exercise-induced anaphylaxis (EIA) isn’t common, but it can be deadly. 

Before you try to use this condition as a reason to get out of your next personal-training appointment, though, note that just two percent of the population has a legit allergic reaction to exercise—however, a similar condition, urticaria, can cause exercise-induced hives and it’s much more common (more on that later). 

EIA can show up in all types of exercise, from hard-hitting, intense cardio workouts to light walking and jogging, depending on how severe the condition is. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include a red, flushed face and trouble breathing—but, wait, aren’t those just symptoms of exercise? Well, yes. However, with EIA you’ll see them in combination with other, more serious symptoms such as swelling in the skin, tongue, or lips, tightness in the throat, difficulty swallowing and, potentially, a dramatic drop in blood pressure in the case of anaphylactic shock. Pro tip: You want to avoid anaphylactic shock, so if you start to feel any of these symptoms, stop exercising immediately and see a health care professional right away. 

Sometimes, exercise-induced anaphylaxis is paired with food allergies. This means that you only suffer the symptoms if you eat a particular food—most commonly it’s wheat, but it could be shellfish, too—before you exercise. If this is the case, it’s best to avoid that trigger food entirely, but most definitely on the days that you exercise. 

If it turns out that you’re one of the unlucky few that actually do suffer from EIA, you will need to carry around an epinephrine auto-injector (i.e. an EpiPen) to have on hand if anaphylaxis begins. In the most severe of cases, you should avoid exercise entirely.

About Those Hives

If you break out in hives when you sweat during a workout session or experience raised, angry welts on your skin, you might be experiencing exercise-induced urticaria, a much more milder reaction. Other signs include itchy, red skin, minor trouble breathing, stomach cramps, headache or slight swelling of the face, tongue, or hands. 

Now, just because this condition is more common than EIA—it affects anywhere between 10 percent and 20 percent of the population—doesn’t mean it’s not concerning. However, if you experience urticaria during exercise, you probably have reactions at other times, too—it’s unusual for hives to show up exclusively during workouts. 

So, here’s what you can do: Take note of what you’re doing or eating before you experience hives or other symptoms during exercise. If you notice a pattern, these might be your triggers. In other words, this is what you need to avoid before you exercise so you don’t have a flare-up. Antihistamines prior to hitting the gym can help, too, but always visit the doc for a full check-up when dealing with a situation like this—just because exercise-induced urticaria is more common than anaphylaxis doesn’t mean you should ignore the symptoms.