Most of us coming into contact with water take it for granted — whether it’s showering, sweating, crying or swimming.
But for 18-year-old Cuesta College student Bradlee Sanchez, the sensation results in itchiness and a blotchy, red reaction. That’s because she has an extremely rare condition, aquagenic urticaria, making her allergic to water.
The disorder is so rare only about 50 cases have been documented in medical journals.
The irony is that Sanchez loves to swim and surf and plans to compete on the Cuesta College swim team.
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She’s able to submerge herself in water by wearing a protective cream called DermaSwim. She still reddens, but the skin isn’t nearly as itchy as it would be without the ointment.
“I really love swimming and surfing,” Sanchez said. “I never really wanted to quit.”
Sanchez began swimming at age 4, eight years before she began showing symptoms of the water allergy. She participated in the Pump Aquatic Club at age 6.
Later, she joined junior lifeguards and was primed to swim on the Arroyo Grande High School team.
But about age 12, she started noticing hives and irritation when she took showers. The reaction typically affects her chest, stomach and upper thighs.
Aquagenic urticaria is more common among women; symptoms usually begin around the start of puberty, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“I went to the dermatologist, and we did some tests and then he diagnosed me,” Sanchez said. “He said, ‘I’ve never seen this before.’ ”
The allergy also causes her rashes not only when swimming or showering but when she sweats, cries or walks in the rain.
Symptoms start appearing within a minute or so and can take 45 minutes to dissipate.
“I remember going to a Dodgers game with my family and sitting in the hot sun and just sweating and feeling totally miserable,” Sanchez said. “I remember it was a really long game that took hours. But it’s OK because I love the Dodgers.”
Sanchez took a year off from swimming to learn about how to manage her condition.
Now, it’s just something she deals with, showering before she goes to bed so she doesn’t have to face the reaction as she goes about her day.
“It can be hard to fall asleep sometimes,” Sanchez admitted.
Her friends and people who learn about her condition enjoy asking her questions and experimenting with how water affects her.
Sanchez assesses her level of pain when she contacts water as a 4 on a scale of 1 to 10.
The severity of her condition isn’t as bad as others who have trouble even swallowing water, which Sanchez does not.
Using the protective cream, Sanchez went on to compete for four years on the junior varsity and varsity swim teams at Arroyo Grande High School.
Her events included the 500 individual medley, the 100 butterfly, and the 500 freestyle.
This year, she trained with the Cuesta swim team in the fall and may compete on the team in the spring, when the season starts.
In the meantime, she’s still recovering from a back injury she suffered as a lifeguard while conducting a training exercise that involved towing a larger man.
“I’m a freshman at Cuesta,” Sanchez said. “Whether it’s this year or next year, I want to compete.”