11 Baffling Medical Conditions

In January 1999, he traveled 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle to run a half marathon in his bare feet. Three years later, dressed only in a swimsuit, he dived under the ice at the North Pole and earned a Guinness world record for the longest amount of time swimming under the ice: 80 meters, almost twice the length of an Olympic-size pool.

Hof earned more recent renown for scaling Mount Everest in his shorts.

Hof told ABC News' "20/20" that his ability to withstand cold temperatures was something he discovered more than two decades ago.

"I had a stroll like this in the park with somebody, and I saw the ice and I thought, 'What would happen if I go in there?' I was really attracted to it. I went in, got rid of my clothes. Thirty seconds I was in," Hof said. "Tremendous good feeling when I came out. And since then, I repeated it every day."

Dr. Ken Kamler, author of "Surviving the Extremes," has treated dozens of people who tried to climb Mount Everest and nearly died from the frigid temperatures. When he heard that Hof had ascended the mountain wearing shorts, he became intrigued and began to study the Dutchman. He believes that Hof's ability lies in the wiring of his brain.

"It's very easy to speculate that the same mind control that you use to control your heart when you're scared also can be called upon to control the other organs in the body. And maybe that's how Wim Hof does this," said Kamler. "It's speculation, but it sort of makes sense, and a lot of scientists are working very hard to try to figure this out now."

People Who Are Allergic to Cold

On the other end of the spectrum from Hof are those with a condition known as cold urticaria -- quite literally, an allergy to cold temperatures.

"If you put an ice cube on somebody that has cold urticaria, they're going to have a big welt right where the ice cube was," said Dr. Thomas Casale, chief of allergy and immunology at Creighton University and executive vice president of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Worse, those with the condition can expect to experience similar reactions to bitter winds and cold surfaces.

A minor exposure, such as taking a few snowflakes to the face during a blizzard, can result in the formation of itchy, uncomfortable bumps. A major exposure -- such as from diving into a chilly swimming pool -- could theoretically be enough to send the body into a potentially deadly allergic shock.

"There are patients that we've been talking to who have had full-blown vascular collapse and ended up in the emergency room at death's door," said Dr. Gerald Gleich of the University of Utah, who studies patients who suffer from cold urticaria. "This is a very, very potentially serious problem."

Gleich said that as with other allergies, the hives that occur in those with the condition are brought about by an inappropriate immune response. Specifically, an antibody known as immunoglobulin E is likely to blame, as Gleich's studies have revealed that it is this component of the immune system that is activated when these patients encounter a cold stimulus.

Fortunately, this feature of the condition may also point to possibilities for treatment.

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