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St. Paul girl literally fights off the cold

Fourteen-year-old Tia Liepens of St. Paul embarked on her first ice fishing trip of her life in the Park Rapids area last weekend. Tia has a rare allergy called cold urticaria that causes her skin to break out in hives after exposure to cool temperatures. (Jason Durham / For the Enterprise)

Imagine the difficulty ice fishing would present if you truly enjoyed the outdoors, had a fondness for ice fishing, but were allergic to cold.

Sure, we all complain about sub-zero mornings, numb fingers and nostrils that freeze shut, but those are trivial issues compared to a medical condition called cold urticaria.

Cold urticaria is a rare allergy which causes people to have a reaction, typically hives and swelling, when exposed to cold weather, cold water, or even cold food and drinks.

According to the Mayo Clinic, exposure to cold can be dangerous for people who have cold urticaria. The worst reactions generally occur with full skin exposure, such as swimming in cold water.

A massive release of histamine and other immune system chemicals causes a sudden drop in blood pressure that can lead to fainting, shock and, in rare cases, death. In the case of cold-water swimming, drowning can be caused by loss of consciousness.

Having never heard of cold urticaria, I was surprised last weekend when a young lady, Tia Liepens of St. Paul, told me that she has cold urticaria. My surprise was justified since, ironically, we were ice fishing; her first time ever.

Fourteen-year-old Tia doesn't let cold urticaria interrupt her passion for the outdoors. In fact, fall and winter are her favorite months. She simply has to remain cautious about the weather.

"I love to bike in the fall and go tubing down hills in the winter," says Tia, "and now my new favorite thing is ice fishing." Tia is careful to dress warmly and takes a prescription antihistamine to lessen the severity of the hives, redness and swelling.

When Tia was younger, she didn't go outdoors for recess if the temperature was below 30-degrees Fahrenheit. "My friends understood the hives that would appear on my face, but others would laugh at me or freak out," she says.

Her first reaction to cold was during swimming lessons, when Tia noticed hives developing all over her body.

Her parents, Samantha and Aaron Liepens, brought Tia to numerous doctors, hoping to figure out what was happening to her body. "It was really confusing," admits Tia. The family currently consults with an allergy specialist.

Now Tia knows how to manage the reactions to water. "I have to slowly get used to the water and can't just jump in the lake during summer or I could go into cardiac arrest. It gets annoying when my friends are having fun in the water and I have to let my body acclimate."

Though initially nervous, Tia wasn't about to miss out on the opportunity to ice fish. She immediately fell in love with the ice, and was amazed to see how easily the power ice auger penetrated the frozen lake surface. When asked if she'd like to drill a hole with the auger, she enthusiastically answered, "yes" before the question was even finished.

Her parents captured Tia guiding the auger through the ice, her body's worst enemy, on video.