A fitness instructor is battling a mystery allergy that causes her face to swell up like a ‘pufferfish’ and her lips to double in size.
Carla Roberts, 28, from Dublin, Ireland, has flare-ups that cause large itchy red rings to appear all over her body, without any known cause.
When she first noticed her wrist swelling seven years ago while volunteering in Kanungu, Uganda, she believed it was caused by a mosquito bite.
Since then the reactions have recurred multiple times, increasing in intensity and allegedly lasting for up to a month at a time.
The worst of her reactions persisted for five months, leaving her at ‘rock bottom’ – and doctors baffled.
She has been told she has urticaria, also known as hives, and angioedema – swelling beneath the skin. But her triggers remain unclear.
Carla Roberts, 28, is battling a mystery allergy that causes her face to swell up like a ‘pufferfish’ and her lips to double in size
The fitness instructor’s unusual reactions have recurred multiple times increasing in intensity and typically lasting for up to a month at a time
Ms Roberts does not know what the cause of her reactions are, which started seven years ago
Never knowing when it could strike next, the invisible illness regularly disrupts her daily life.
Ms Roberts said: ‘When I am not having a flareup I am completely fine. However they are becoming more frequent.
‘I regularly wake up terrified to look in the mirror to see a red mark.
‘It’s hard during a flareup to explain to your partner “I’ll be there but it kind of depends if I look like a puffer fish or not”.
Urticaria – otherwise known as hives – and angioedema, swelling beneath the skin, are a response to the body producing histamine.
They occur in about 15 per cent of the population at some time or other in their lives, according to Allergy UK.
The exact cause of both conditions is unknown, but sometimes triggers can be identified, especially for urticaria. These include water, the cold, the sun or exercise.
For Ms Roberts, who has chronic idiopathic urticaria, causing red itchy welts that last weeks, she is no closer to finding out the cause for her reactions.
This is despite the efforts of around 14 doctors and specialists.
She said: ‘My mental health as massively been affected by this condition. I am very happy go lucky positive person. This took everything I had to stay positive.
‘I knew I needed help during my last flareup when I was curled up on my bedroom floor crying.’
Mrs Roberts, who is from Dublin, Ireland, has flareups that cause large itchy red rings to appear all over her body and face without any known reason
She has been told the swelling is chronic idiopathic urticaria – otherwise known as hives – and angioedema, swelling of the lower level of skin
Ms Roberts flare-ups, which cause her skin to show patters such as that pictured, are too random to be caused by diet, she said
Ms Roberts’ first flare-up in 2012 occurred while working as a team leader for a volunteer organisation in Uganda. She was initially prescribed antihistamines and later a steroid injection.
WHAT IS CHRONIC IDIOPATHIC URTICARIA?
Chronic idiopathic urticaria (CIU) – or hives – is a skin reaction that causes red or white itchy welts.
The welts vary in size, and appear and fade repeatedly as the reaction runs its course.
Chronic hives occur when the welts last more than six weeks, or reoccur over months or years.
Chronic hives is not usually life-threatening.
But the condition can be very uncomfortable, and interfere with sleep and daily life.
For many sufferers, antihistamines and anti-itch medications provide relief – but others find it difficult to control their symptoms.
Often, the cause of chronic hives is not clear.
In some cases, chronic hives are a sign of an underlying health problem, such as thyroid disease or lupus.
Source: Mayo Clinic
But the reaction continued to spread, increasing in size to the point where her rings, watch or bracelets would no longer fit.
After her symptoms worsened over the three weeks, her insurance sent her to a tropical medical specialist in Kenya.
She initially thought the bizarre swellings could have been an allergy to dust and was referred to more specialists who kept her on bedrest and tried to rule out any potential allergies.
Later, when back in Ireland, after believing the cause could be due to local anti-malaria tablets, she suffered no symptoms.
But following two years of being symptom free, her reactions bizarrely flared once again in South Africa in 2014.
Ms Roberts said her flare-ups are too random to have been caused by food, and is no closer to findings a remedy despite changing her diet and using countless medications.
She said: ‘The cause of the condition is unknown.
‘Urticaria is a fancy name for a reaction to an unknown thing and angioedema is a fancy word for random swelling.
‘In other words, we don’t have a clue. I don’t believe this condition is caused by one specific thing.
‘Some people have cold-induced urticaria and others have it caused by exercise.
Ms Roberts said running her business can be difficult, particularly as she works with children who she does not want to scare
Ms Roberts decided to speak more openly online about her ailments and share her images in a bid to help others understand her condition and that she is not ‘moody or antisocial’
Around 14 doctors and specialists are yet to find a cause behind the reactions
WHAT IS ANGIODEMA?
Angioedema is swelling underneath the skin. It’s usually a reaction to a trigger, such as a medication or something you’re allergic to.
It isn’t normally serious, but it can be a recurring problem for some people and can very occasionally be life-threatening if it affects breathing.
The swelling most often affects the hands, feet, area around the eyes, lips and tongue and genitals.
Many people also have a raised, itchy rash called urticaria (hives).
In more serious cases, angioedema can also cause breathing difficulties, tummy pain and dizziness.
There are several different types of angioedema, each of which has a different cause, such as an allergy to food, medication or genetic fault.
But in many cases, it’s not clear what causes angioedema. This is known as idiopathic angioedema.
Urticaria and angioedema often occur at different times or together in the same person. They occur in about 15 per cent of the population at some time or other in their lives, with women more commonly affected than men, according to Allergy UK.
‘But as a fitness instructor, I personally find that if I have a flare up and teach a kids or adults class my flare up calms.
‘Whether this is the exercise or the fact that my brain isn’t thinking about the hives and swelling it ceases – but to be honest, I have no clue.’
Running her own business, Ms Roberts has to face people during a flare up which can be difficult.
She said: ‘I don’t want to scare or upset the kids I work with by them seeing me with the reaction.
‘I don’t want adults to see me because I know they care and will be so kind to me that that will make me cry.’
Ms Roberts has now been trying to balance her work with her crippling symptoms.
She decided to speak more openly online about her ailments and began sharing her images in a bid to help others understand.
Ms Roberts said: ‘I was proud of myself that I was covering it up so well, but I quickly learned that when you are never alone.
‘I shared the images initially because I wanted my friends and clients to know that I’m not being antisocial or moody.
‘I have a condition that I am constantly fighting, and it was taking all of my energy.’