Meet the man allergic to water: Aquagenic pruritus sufferer cannot even shower
Roger Hayward is allergic to water.
He knows how weird that sounds but, for the 54-year-old Hamilton man, that fact is just a regular part of his life – and not even something he gives much thought to.
He suffers from aquagenic pruritus, which is essentially an allergy to water when in contact with skin. Because of his rare condition, Roger can’t shower.
His body is made of about 60 per cent water, but that same element, when touching his skin, causes it to react as if under attack.
He remembers when it all started. He was a healthy and active 18-year-old living in Wellington when, after a lifetime with no allergies, he suddenly started feeling itchy after each shower.
He recalls one time when the allergy was so severe after a shower, he got himself dressed as quickly as he could and literally ran out of the house, trying to outrun the itchiness. His body felt like it was under attack. Suddenly, something he had coped with just fine all his life became unbearable.
“I just remembered going out of the building for a run because I was so itchy,” he recalls.
Decades later, Roger has adapted to life with his rare condition. It wasn’t until he was sitting in traffic earlier this week listening to someone on the radio talk about Hollywood celebrities revealed how often they shower that his condition even came to his mind.
So many people debating how often is too often for a shower. Once a day? Three times a day like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? Every second day? Every week? For Roger, the answer is never.
Well, not quite, but almost. Through winter, the 54-year-old ESOL teacher doesn’t shower at all. The winter months allow his body to build a bit of tolerance to water so, at the start of summer, he can have a handful of swims in the sea (why would you waste your scarce water tolerance on showers?), before the allergy starts becoming too much again.
“I go for swims in the ocean and in the pools and can get away with five or six times.
“If I have a long enough break, say six or seven months, I can have some swims at the start of summer and then it starts again,” he explains.
As a young man facing a condition no one around him had known about, he looked for answers in the medical community. He saw specialists both in New Zealand and in the US, while travelling, but had to work out his own triggers on his own, as even people with the same condition (and there aren’t many) all react in different ways.
“I tried different prescribed creams, special soaps and antihistamines but nothing worked for me. Maybe for some it would,” he recalls.
Not wanting to “be on pills” all his life anyway, the young man decided to try going without showering.
He says the human body is a fascinating thing and he adapted to never really needing to shower. He washes “strategic parts” that need cleaning but, other than that, he avoids contact with water at all costs, to prevent flare-ups.
“It’s remarkable really, I don’t know if it’s the oils in the body but it’s amazing, I’ve never had any complaints,” he says.
Roger, who is married and the father of five children, says most of his friends don’t even know about his allergy.
“I told some mates a few months ago and they didn’t believe me.”
It’s been nearly 40 years since he developed the condition and, in that time, he has become so good at managing it, he hardly ever remembers he has it. But it wasn’t always this easy.
“I still remember the anguish of the insane itching before I learnt to manage it,” he says. “I would dress as quickly as possible after a shower and take off running up the street.
“Initially I think to just stop going crazy and distract myself but then I discovered it helped reduce the length of recovery time too.”
In his case, he says he can sometimes go for a run and, if his heart rate and body temperature get high enough, he can tolerate a quick shower with only a mild allergic reaction. But it took him a long time to figure out what his body could cope with.
“Management is the key but when you first start to experience it, it is super stressful,” he says. “Back then, it was a big deal for me. I would try to shower every day but it was just getting worse and worse.”
He says he has never met anyone else with his condition and it was only after hearing the shower debates on the radio that he thought about Googling it.
Water allergy 'uncommon, but not unheard of'
Roger’s condition is called “aquagenic pruritus”, meaning water on his skin causes him itchiness but no other visible symptoms, such as rashes or hives.
There are known variations of the allergy to water that can include rashes or welts on the skin.
According to Dr Louise Reiche, president of the New Zealand Dermatological Society, the condition is “uncommon, but not unheard of”.
Reiche says it is “pretty rare” to encounter someone with aquagenic pruritus or aquagenic urticaria and the number of these cases in New Zealand is not known.
There are less than 100 cases of aquagenic urticaria that have been reported in the medical literature.
Regardless of whether the itchiness comes with a visible skin reaction or not, the mechanism for the two kinds of aquagenic allergy is the same.
For some people it can appear out of the blue, like Roger suspects it did for him, aged 18. For others, there could be a trigger. Reiche mentions the examples of people who “have worked in the forces and done rescue missions and been in cold water for extended periods of time” who then went on to develop the allergy.
“It is often a temperature-sensitive phenomenon – more often cold water,” she says. But it can also be different temperatures.
It can also come quickly or as a delayed effect after a longer interval. The factors are widely varied, making it hard to narrow down a list of likely triggers. It means that each person who suffers from it has to work out their own personal triggers, and learn to manage it.
“If they see a dermatologist they will get a better assessment, we can help just observe those different features. Then there are different steps to mitigate it,” she explains.
Antihistamines can be used, sometimes in advance, as a way to either prevent the reaction altogether or speed up its resolution.
“Usually the problem eventually burns itself out as mysteriously as it came. We think the body develops its own counter antibodies,” Reiche says.
Roger, who has lived with the condition for nearly four decades, is aware of his triggers and well used to avoiding them.
He plays golf and squash and does numerous other activities. His life is perfectly normal, save for the fact that he doesn’t find baths to be relaxing and he has to avoid being out in the rain. Sometimes, even humidity can cause his skin to itch.
He’s come a long way since his days of having to run up the street to stop himself “going crazy” with the itch – and he hopes more people will learn about the condition so that it doesn’t take so long for fellow sufferers to work out what’s going on with them.
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