Balloons are a common sight at children’s birthdays, weddings, restaurants and shops. But Liz Knight has spent most of her life avoiding them because coming into contact with one could kill her.
As a child, Liz was allergic to dust, animal hair and feathers. By the age of 12, doctors found she was also allergic to human hair. Her long blonde ponytail was duly cut off into a short, cropped style that wouldn’t cause any irritation.
It didn’t stop there – the extent of her allergies only grew and some of her earliest memories involve being isolated because of them.
“We went to visit a relative when I was four; I think it was an aunt or a great-aunt of mine. She had a budgie – everyone seemed to have them in the 60s and 70s – and I was really bad with any type of feathers.
“I can remember we parked up in the drive, my parents went in with my two sisters, and I couldn’t go in. The budgie meant I had to stay in the car on my own. It made me feel very left out – I couldn’t do what normal people do.”
Liz, from Paignton in Devon, has suffered with irritated skin her whole life. In her 20s, her eczema got infected and led to septicaemia, which left her hospitalised for weeks. But it wasn’t until the 1990s, when she was at a fair with her family, that she suspected a latex allergy.
“One of my daughters handed me a handful of these great, big, thick helium balloons and asked me if I could hold them while she ran off to do something. I must have touched my face after holding them because that’s when this dramatic swelling started.”
Liz, now 56, believes she developed the allergy by repeated exposure to latex from going to the doctors so much, which exposed her already fragile skin to the material.
Her everyday life has been impacted in a multitude of ways. She can no longer read a newspaper, because the ink contains latex. It is the same with the buttons on remote controls, the handle of her carving knife, her blender, mixer and hairdryer, all of which are covered with cling film so she can still use them.
Whenever there are road-works nearby, Liz has to keep her doors and windows closed because the road surface also contains latex. She says she often feels like a prisoner in her own home.
“I often feel trapped. Sometimes I stay at home for up to a week, just because it’s safe.”
Then four years ago, Liz got confirmation of what she was dreading: her latex allergy had gone airborne. She had walked into a shop with her husband during the winter and her lips instantly swelled and she broke out in hives.
“I went straight back outside and said, ‘I don’t know what’s in there, but something’s making me feel really bad’.”
They looked back and saw six balloons tied around a stand at the back of the shop. In that case, the latex proteins had been circulating through the heating system. But Liz’s allergy is so severe that even if a room has had a balloon in it in the past 48 hours – especially if it has popped – she might have a severe reaction because the latex proteins could still be in the air.
Most reactions cause her to start sweating, her lips swell and she has a feeling of “impending doom”. She can normally handle the symptoms by leaving the area, going outside and letting herself recover – although it can take hours to get back to normal.
What is a latex allergy?
- Latex is a milky sap from plants like the tropical rubber tree and is collected by drilling into the trunk
- It is used to make rubber items such as household and medical gloves, shoes, tyres, balloons and condoms
- Allergies are caused by your immune system overreacting to something it perceives as a threat, with symptoms ranging from a mild rash to anaphylaxis
- Up to 5% of people could have an allergy to latex, according to the NHS, although not all will show symptoms
- A tendency to develop allergies can be hereditary, although conditions like asthma and eczema also make people more susceptible
- The only way for sufferers to avoid reactions is to avoid latex as much as possible
- Regular contact with latex, such as the gloves sometimes used in healthcare professions, will lead to higher chances of a latex allergy, with repeated exposure often making reactions worse
- There are experimental treatments to desensitise people from latex, but they are not yet widely available
Source: NHS, British Association of Dermatologists, Globalaai
One recent reaction at her home, however, was more extreme, and left her in serious trouble.
“A few months ago I made a sweet and sour dish using a sachet that had 2% pineapple juice. Within about 15 minutes of eating it I could feel my tongue swelling, and then my throat started going a bit funny. My tongue was getting worse and worse.”
Tropical fruits have proteins that are almost identical to the latex protein, and often produce a very similar reaction. She used her Epipen, a self-administered injection of adrenaline which slows the effects of allergic reactions.
“The paramedics took my blood pressure in the ambulance and it was 194 over something – through the roof.”
Liz was monitored in hospital for several hours to make sure she didn’t have a biphasic reaction – a delayed reaction comparable to the aftershocks following an earthquake – and ultimately the symptoms died down.
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Liz’s allergies have had an effect on many aspects of her mental health. Her social circle has “drastically shrunk” and she had to quit an exercise group she attended for years because of the latex in mats, trainers and aerosol sprays.
She has also had to give up her work at a pharmacy due to repeated reactions which were endangering her health, and now feels guilty that she can’t contribute financially at home.
Despite all of this, Liz says she’s determined not to let her latex allergy completely take over her life. “I can walk, I can do and see things, and I’ve got to be grateful for the things I do have.”
She has now found a crochet group near her house where everyone is happy to look out for her. She is also an ambassador for the allergy awareness group, Globalaai.
Globalaai was formed in 2016 after its founder, Dr Pooja Newman, had an anaphylactic shock at a concert in Melbourne. A surprise balloon drop left her in intensive care for nearly a week and inspired her to raise awareness of latex allergies around the world.
While recovering, she made a Facebook page to tell her story and the non-profit organisation was founded.
“Part of the reason for this charity is to recognise the trauma people suffer as a result of an anaphylactic event and the issues around feeling discriminated or not included in everyday life,” said Dr Newman.
The organisation has developed Epipen stations in public places and has supported the ban of latex gloves in food preparation in several US states, as well as a proposed restriction of balloons in public spaces in Australia.
Liz’s work with the group has seen progress in Paignton, with many shops changing their practices on her advice. While recognising the many ways in which her allergies limit her life, Liz’s outlook remains positive.
“When it feels really unfair I get a bit depressed about it I suppose, but there’s always that feeling that it could be worse. I try to talk to as many people as possible about latex allergies. The more people that know about it, the more things can change.
“I’m determined not to let allergies take away everything in my life, and I’ll work to improve things, not just for me, but for other people as well.”