A rare disorder has made a young woman allergic to everything - including her own tears, growing hair and even exercise.
Natasha Coates, from Nottingham, has an immunological disorder called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS), which causes severe allergic-like symptoms due to the mast cells over-responding to a trigger such as food or weather.
"Mast Cells, which live in your bone marrow and surround all your major organs are responsible for releasing things such as histamine," Natasha, 22, says.
“The cells in my body react inappropriately. So for example, if I eat something that I am slightly allergic to it releases too much of the chemical.
“Reactions can vary. They can be anything from just feeling under the weather, itchy, very tired or they can be life-threatening like tongue and throat swelling."
Natasha has allergic reactions to her own tears, growing her hair, changes in the weather, many foods and the process of digestion.
When her hair grows, her scalp starts to blister, it burns and causes her to be in absolute agony. When she cries, the tears cause a red rash down her face, and certain foods can be fine one day, and the next can almost kill her.
“I just kind of have to make the bald girl look work, really – I don’t have much choice," Natasha says.
“One day I could eat a cheese sandwich and I will be fine. I could eat the exact thing the next day and it could try and kill me. And the day after I could eat it again and it will be fine. I don’t know what I’m going to react to next.
“There are so many things I react to; changes in temperature, I react to bath products, beauty products, deodorants, sprays, absolutely everything...different make-ups, just things around the house.
“I am allergic to everything."
And the effects of the illness have left her with a drastically curbed lifestyle.
“I am not able to do most things most 22-year-olds do," Natasha says. "I can’t drink alcohol. I can’t even tolerate it on my skin. I can’t go out clubbing just because of the environment with all smoke and food."
One of the most stressful aspects is the disease's unpredictability.
"Mast Cell Activation Syndrome is an incredibly difficult condition to live with," Natasha explains.
"It can be very hard to cope with because I can never know what’s going to happen during the day. I never know if I am going to make it. If I will be sleeping in my own bed or be in a hospital bed. Or even if I will survive, to be honest."
To avoid potential reactions, Natasha’s mum, Adele, only cooks certain safe foods and keeps the house as clean as possible to reduce the pollen and dust.
She also ensures that anyone who enters their front door washes their hands to not bring infection in.
“To reduce the chance of Natasha having a reaction I tend to be over-zealous with the cleaning, dusting, wiping surfaces down, making sure people wash their hands when they come to the house," Adele explains. "They can wash their hands when they go if they like as well, just to keep her safe really."
Natasha experiences multiple reactions a day, typically migraines, itching and swellings causing her to have used over 250 EpiPens and countless trips to the hospital due to life-threatening reactions.
“I am so sensitive to the environment around me that I can tell when the weather is going to change," Natasha says. "If there is going to be a storm, I can feel the pressure changes because I have got quite severe bone pain or the pollen in the air drops. I will experience high fever type symptoms. So, I am pretty much known as a weather lady."
Symptoms of the condition only started to develop when she was 18, but it took Natasha two years to be diagnosed.
“Towards the end of 2012 I started getting allergic reactions to fruit," Natasha says. "My lips would blister a little bit and feel a bit itchy. First it was apples, then strawberries and then it was tomatoes.
“I was sent to an allergist and was told I had Oral Allergy Syndrome and to carry an EpiPen just in case.
“But then I was out one day with friends at an event. I hadn’t eaten anything new. I hadn’t drunk anything new and I suddenly felt really unwell. The next thing I know, they are putting an oxygen mask on my face and then I lost consciousness.
“I was told I’d had a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction."
Natasha’s body is also aggravated by exercise which means her body is more likely to be triggered.
Despite this, Natasha is an elite disability gymnast, competing in the Disability British Championships and is ranked number one in the UK.
She refuses to let her severe allergic reactions - which includes seizures, inability to feel limbs, popping out joints, difficulty breathing and throat swellings - stop her from maintaining her title.
Natasha said: “I have done gymnastics since the age of eight, just recreationally. And when I developed this condition I wasn’t able to keep up with the mainstream gymnastics so I switched to disability.
"There are lots of barriers when I exercise because of the way chemicals affect my brain. I lose the feeling from my elbows down and my knees down. So, when I stand on the beam, I can’t feel my feet, I can only look at the beam to know where they are. When I catch the high bar, I can’t feel my hands actually to grasp the bar.
“Gymnastics for me is my therapy. It keeps me sane and also helps with my physical ability."
Natasha is now trying to raise awareness of MCAS and how it affects its sufferers.
“I think quite a lot of people don’t see me as disabled, that can be quite frustrating when I need adaptations," Natasha says.
“I get the, ‘You don’t look sick’ or, ‘You don’t look disabled’, because they can’t see if I’m in pain, they can’t see my organs swelling internally and things like that. I always have to validate my disability which I don’t feel anybody should have to do.
“People think of disability as missing limbs or, you know, in a wheelchair."
MCAS affects every part of Natasha’s life and has a huge impact on what she can do on a daily basis.
"Mast Cell Activation Syndrome affects every bit of my life," she says. "From what I eat, where I sleep, to the products I use, to the people I interact with, to the places I go.
"I stay positive just by practicing being positive – you know I say, ‘Fake it till you make it', if I just keep telling myself that it's okay this will be alright then I start to believe in myself.
“When I developed this disability there was no one for me to really look up to and I want to be that role model for people."
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