By Josh Saunders
A fitness instructor is battling a mystery allergy that causes her face to swell up like a ‘pufferfish’.
Carla Roberts, 28, from Dublin, Ireland, suffers flareups that cause large itchy welts to appear all her body as well as causing her face and lips to double in size, without any known reason.
She first noticed her wrist swell and a red ring surrounding the area seven years ago while volunteering in Kanungu, Uganda, which she believed to be a mosquito bite.
But it continued to spread, increasing in size to the point where her rings, watch or bracelets would no longer fit – leaving doctors baffled.
Since then the unusual reactions have recurred multiple times increasing in intensity and typically lasting for up to a month at a time – but at their worst going on for five months.
Carla said the symptoms have left her at ‘rock bottom’ with never knowing when it could strike next and the invisible illness regularly disrupts her daily life.
And despite the efforts of around 14 doctors and specialists, she is still yet to find a cause behind her reactions.
Carla said: “When I am not having a flareup I am completely fine, however as they are becoming more frequent.
“I regularly wake up terrified to look in the mirror to see a red mark or wakeup with an itch.
“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. Rock meet bottom.
“I run my own business centered around working with people, so every time to have a flare up is a bad time.
“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.
“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.’”
Carla’s first flare-up in 2012, occurred while working as a team leader for a volunteer organisation in Uganda – where she was initially prescribed antihistamines and later a steroids injection.
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, but it continued to persist.
Later, when back in Ireland, after believing the cause was due to taking local anti-malaria tablets, she suffered no symptoms.
But following a two-year gap of being symptom free, her reactions flared once again in South Africa in 2014.
Carla said her flare-ups are too random to have been caused by food but could coincide with her body ‘getting her out’ of stressful situations she has been in.
She knows the swelling is chronic idiopathic urticaria – otherwise known as hives – and angioedema, swelling of the lower level of skin.
But Carla is still no closer to finding the cause as despite changing her diet and countless medications nothing seems to resolve the problem.
Carla 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.
“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.”
Carla has now been trying to balance her work with her crippling symptoms.
While struggling a difficult flareup, she recognised the need to speak more openly online about her ailments so she began sharing her images in a bid to help others understand.
Carla 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.”