Rachel wakes up – and drinks a kind of poison that feels like a glass of stinging nettles. As it slips downs her throat, she can feel it blistering her skin, leaving a trail of red, itchy welts behind. Later that day, scorching drops of the stuff start falling from the sky. At the local leisure centre, she watches others splash around in a pool of the irritant. They seem unfazed, but the moment she dips her toe in, she’s faced with burning pain.
No, this is not some bizarre alternate reality. This is the world of Rachel Warwick, who is allergic to water. It’s a world where relaxing baths are the stuff of nightmares and
snorkelling in tropical seas is as appealing as rubbing yourself with bleach. “Those things are my idea of hell,” she says.Any contact with water whatsoever – even her own sweat – leaves Rachel with a painful, swollen and intensely itchy rash which can last for several hours. “The reaction makes me feel as if I’ve run a marathon. I feel really tired afterwards so I have to go and sit down for quite a while,” she says. “It’s horrible, but if I cry my face swells up”.
Otherwise known as aquagenic urticaria, the condition is like being stung by a bush of particularly pernicious nettles, combined with the malaise of hay fever, every single day.
It’s certainly unpleasant, but at this point you’re probably wondering how Rachel is able to survive at all. We’re reminded on almost a daily basis that water is life’s most basic necessity – so much so that NASA’s motto on the hunt for alien life is simply “follow the water”. At least 60% of the human body is water; the average 70 kg adult contains around 40 litres.
So let’s get a few things straight. For a start, the water in our bodies is apparently not a problem. The reaction is triggered by skin contact and occurs regardless of temperature, purity or salt content. Even bona fide, chemical-free, many-times distilled water will set it off.
“When I meet people there’s always a lot of confusion and all the usual questions – ‘how do you eat?’ ‘How do you drink?’ ‘How do you wash?’ The truth is you just have to suck it up and get on with it,” says Rachel.