A Utah teenager is living with an allergy most of us might find hard to believe. It's not hay fever or an allergy to cats — 17-year-old Alexandra Allen is allergic to water.
The incurable condition, so rare that only about 50 cases have ever been described in the scientific literature, is known as aquagenic urticaria.
When she was 12, Allen had a severe reaction after swimming at a hotel pool while on a family vacation, waking up later in the evening with severe itching and her skin breaking out in hives.
She thought it might have been an allergic reaction to the pool chlorine.
"I remember sitting in the bathroom trying so hard not to scratch myself and make it worse until my mom came back with the Benadryl," the Mapleton, Utah, high school student says.
It wasn't until she was 15 that she stumbled across a description of aquagenic urticaria online and realized the described symptoms matched hers exactly.
She took the information to her dermatologists, who had to consult with other specialists.
"He brought in a few other doctors and they just sat around in awe," she says.
A test to confirm the diagnosis, in which she had to sit and soak in a tub of water, was "like being tortured," she says.
The condition is not a true allergy, experts say, but does cause severe allergy-like symptoms and reactions.
The condition tends to affect women more than men and usually makes it first appearance during puberty, according to a study published in the Journal of Allergy Immunological Practice.
That study is one of just a few to ever focus on the condition.
Water is the main trigger, from any source, including rain, snow, tears or sweat.
"It feels like your skin has been sandpapered down until there's only one layer left and it itches, but you can't itch [scratch] it or it will break and burn and bleed," Allen says. "You just feel like you've been dipped in a vat of acid, not for long, but for long enough to tear off a layer of skin."
She has learned to modify her lifestyle to avoid most forms of water. Swimming is a no-no, obviously. She has gone vegetarian in effort to reduce the oils in her skin, avoids anything that would make her sweat and has to be content with two or three cold, extremely short showers each week.
The hardest thing about her condition, she says, is that she's had to give up her dream of being a marine biologist and making a sailboat her home.
"It's not worth it anymore," Allen says about having to avoiding water. "It's both emotionally strenuous and physically painful. I can't let myself go there."
Still, she notes, it does get her out of doing the dishes.