Britain has one of the highest allergy rates in the world, with the number of sufferers trebling over the past 20 years. Joanne Carruthers meets a woman who, to some extent, is allergic to life.
You might as well just say I'm allergic to the 21st Century," quips Lee Doyle, who somehow manages to retain a sense of humour despite the daily difficulties she faces.
Lee has a severe and potentially life-threatening allergy to latex, a substance that comes from the sap of the tropical rubber tree and is used in the manufacture of an enormous variety of everyday things.
"It's in everything," says Lee, 40, from Sunderland. "From the foam in cushions, to scratch cards, bubble gum and balloons. Christmas time is particularly difficult for me. Going shopping is a nightmare because there are balloons everywhere and I can't even be in the same room as one without the potential for a serious reaction. I'm violently allergic to poinsettias too so even walking into a supermarket at that time of year can do for me."
While most of us enjoy getting ready for Christmas, pleasures we take for granted like wrapping presents and decorating the tree are fraught with danger for Lee. "I'm allergic to lots of tinsels and lights and to loads of Christmas decorations because of the glue in them. I'm allergic to stamps and envelopes and to sticky tape and elastic bands. We have to do things the old fashioned way at home and use ribbon to tie up our presents, but a lot of my friends think that's great."
Even receiving gifts can have the excitement taken out of it. "I have to ask anyone that's sending my daughters presents to check whether they have latex in them - and that doesn't mean just checking the label but actually contacting the manufacturer to find out, which can be a bit of a mission."
"Latex allergy affects about 1% of the general population," explains Aleks Kinay, chairman of the Latex Allergy Support Group, (LASG), a national voluntary-run organisation which offers support to affected individuals, employers and healthcare agencies.
"It's more common in health workers and people who've had multiple surgical operations and most reactions to it tend to be mild to moderate. But for some people with Type One allergy like Lee it can be life-threatening."
Christmas might be especially hard for Lee but the rest of the year isn't exactly easy, and the latex allergy is only one of her worries.
Since 2000, when she was first diagnosed, Lee's life has changed beyond all recognition. Even the face staring back at her when she looks in the mirror is different. "I've gone from an independent, attractive woman who worked and had a free life to someone who can't work, is virtually housebound and bald as a coot."
Over the last few years, Lee has been locked in a vicious cycle of allergic reactions, which has badly damaged her immune system, causing her problems to escalate. "It's like I'm trapped. Because latex is so hard to avoid I'm constantly sensitising myself to it, but the more sensitised I become the more I react, and so the reactions just get worse.
"Basically, the latex allergy has destroyed my immune system completely, so I've now developed other co-existing immune conditions as well. I've started to react to a whole load of other things which aren't latex-related. I've been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, pernicious anaemia and alopecia totalis." Hence the loss of her hair, something you can tell she's found particularly upsetting.
"It's not that my immune system doesn't work but that it works so well I react to almost everything I walk past. I've got an 11-page list of things I'm allergic to, from bananas to cork, and that's by no means exhaustive."
Lee lives her life on a constant knife-edge, in the knowledge that any of these allergens could send her into anaphylactic shock - an extreme and life-threatening allergic reaction.
Lee describes how an overwhelming feeling of impending doom engulfs her each time she goes into anaphylaxis. "However many times it happened you would never get used to it. If you can imagine thinking each breath is going to be your last, that's what it's like."
Lee is frightened to even go outside her front door in case of a reaction. She always carries two injections of adrenaline with her and one of hydrocortisone. And there's even a latex-free resuscitation pack in the back of her car.
It would be easy for Lee to become a prisoner in her own home - but then she isn't completely safe there either. "The first time I went into anaphylaxis it was sports day at Hannah's school," remembers Lee. "When she got home I gave her a kiss and next thing I knew I was being blue-lighted into A&E.
"Hannah had been blowing up balloons four hours earlier and still had some particles on her lips that set me off."
Lee is now taking the same dosage of immuno-suppressant drugs as someone with a heart transplant, in an attempt to dampen her immune system, but even so she needs 24-hour supervision.
"It's completely changed my life," admits Lee. "The one thing I really miss is being able to go out to work. I don't feel as if I'm having a normal life."
Lee, who previously worked in a bank, has been on long-term sick leave since February 2004 and is now classified as severely disabled.
Even the simplest of activities have become a challenge for her. "There's no such thing as latex-free elastic so imagine trying to buy underwear, it's a nightmare," she laughs, still able to look on the bright side of things after five years of coping by trial and error.
She can't even open a bag of sugar as she used to. "Because the top is stuck down with glue I can't open it," she explains. "I have to slit it further down so the sugar comes out without going past the glue."
Lee's illnesses and allergies have profoundly affected both her life and that of her family and friends, who sit with her at home and accompany her when she goes out.
As we chat, Lee's two young daughters, Hannah, 15, and Martha, eight, are busy preparing the dinner for their mum, who has to stay in another room while they peel and chop the potatoes for tonight's shepherd's pie in case she has a reaction.
Lee doesn't know how she'd have coped without their support. "Martha's especially good on `balloon watch' when we go shopping but I think it's had the biggest effect on Hannah because she has to help so much around the house.
"She does a lot of cooking, opens envelopes and packages, and packs the shopping in the supermarket because I'm allergic to the conveyor belts. At home she has to decant any food which has glue on the packaging into plastic boxes so it doesn't get contaminated."
Listening to Lee, you can't help but ask how she's remained so positive. "You've caught me on a good day," she insists.
"Sometimes you're up, sometimes you're down. But you learn to live with it."
One thing that helps Lee to cope is trying to raise awareness about latex allergy.
"As it's not a common illness I have to fight," she says. "People don't understand how serious pure allergy is and they don't realise how widely latex is used." When people first meet me I'm sure they think `is this real?' but when they've seen me have a reaction they believe it."
Aleks Kinay of the LASG agrees awareness is lacking. "We're trying to increase awareness, especially among occupational groups regularly exposed to latex.
"There isn't much guidance and people might be having mild reactions but have no idea what is happening."
Page 2: Rubber allergy
It's estimated latex allergy affects about 1% of the population.
Natural rubber latex (NRL) is the name of the sap from the Brazilian rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis. The sap is processed and used to make many products.
Coming into contact with tiny amounts of latex protein causes the body to have an allergic reaction. As particles can also be airborne some people don't even have to come into direct contact with a latex product. Symptoms range from rashes to potentially life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
It's more common in people exposed to latex regularly, such as healthcare workers and those who've had repeated surgery.
People sensitive to latex should try to avoid any articles made from rubber. Items to avoid include gloves, balloons, rubber toys, rubbers, car mats, rubber bands, hot water bottles and some contraceptives.
For more information contact the Latex Allergy Support Group helpline on 07071 225838 (7pm-10pm).