Latex, also known as rubber or natural latex, is derived from the milky sap of the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. This tree is found in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Latex allergy develops after some sensitizing contact with latex. Rubber gloves are the main source of allergic reactions. For many people, a component of the latex substance itself is an allergen. The residual powder on latex gloves is also an airborne allergen that causes upper airway allergic reactions in some people, as well as worsening asthma.
What Causes Latex Allergy?
The exact cause of latex allergy is unknown, but it is thought that repeated exposure to latex and rubber products may induce symptoms.
About 5 to 10% of healthcare workers have some form of allergy to latex.
Who Is Affected By Latex Allergy?
Other than healthcare workers, people at increased risk for developing latex allergy include those who have:
- Myelodysplasia (defects in the bone marrow cells)
- Congenital urologic abnormalities
- A history of multiple surgical procedures
- Intermittent catheterization
- Dams for certain types of dental care
- Allergy, asthma or eczema
- Food allergies to banana, avocado, kiwi, or chestnuts
What Happens During A Latex Reaction?
There are three types of latex reactions:
- Irritant contact dermatitis. The least threatening type of latex reaction, classified as a non-allergenic skin reaction. It results in dryness, itching, burning, scaling, and lesions of the skin.
- Allergic contact dermatitis. A delayed reaction to additives used in latex processing, which results in the same type of reactions as irritant contact dermatitis (dryness, itching, burning, scaling and lesions of the skin), but the reaction is more severe, spreads to more parts of the body and lasts longer.
- Immediate allergic reaction (latex hypersensitivity). The most serious reaction to latex. It can show up as rhinitis with hay fever-like symptoms, conjunctivitis (pink eye), cramps, hives and severe itching. Rarely, symptoms may progress to include rapid heartbeat, tremors, chest pain, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, anaphylactic shock, temporary loss of consciousness or, potentially, death.
What Should I Do When A Latex-Allergy Reaction Occurs?
Allergic reactions to latex can range from skin redness and itching to more serious symptoms, such as hives or gastrointestinal problems. True allergic reactions to latex rarely progress to the life-threatening conditions such as low blood pressure, difficulty breathing or rapid heart rate. However, if left untreated, these conditions could potentially result in death.
If you experience severe symptoms, call your doctor or 911 immediately, or go to the nearest emergency room.
How Is Latex Allergy Diagnosed?
A latex allergy is diagnosed in patients who:
- Have experienced signs or symptoms of allergic reaction (skin rash, hives, eye tearing or irritation, wheezing, itching, difficulty breathing) when exposed to latex or natural rubber products.
- Do not have signs or symptoms of latex allergy but are known to be at risk for latex allergy and have a positive skin test to latex. Since the latex allergen used in the test is not readily available in the United States, a blood test is sometimes performed to detect allergy-producing antibodies.
Skin testing for latex allergy should only be done with the close supervision of an allergy specialist because of the risk of severe reactions.
How Is Latex Allergy Treated?
Reactions may be treated by removal of the latex product and drug treatment according to the type of symptoms developing. If the symptoms are irritant contact dermatitis, antihistamine and/or corticosteroid medicines may be enough to treat symptoms. Severe reactions should be treated with epinephrine, intravenous fluids, and other support by hospital or emergency personnel.
If you have latex allergy, it is important for you to wear a MedicAlert bracelet and carry an emergency epinephrine syringe.
There is no cure for latex allergy, so the best treatment for this condition is prevention.
How Can I Make My Home Safe?
If you're at risk for serious reactions to latex, you must make many lifestyle changes to ensure a latex-safe environment. While it may require leading a more protected and isolated life, you can continue certain activities when precautions are taken.
- Carry basic latex alternatives (such as non-latex, non-powdered gloves) at all times.
- Keep all shoes, boots, and sneakers in covered containers.
- Never travel alone. Always travel with another person, especially to doctor appointments where you might accidentally come into contact with latex.
- Plan in advance to ensure latex avoidance at any family function or party.
Because a latex allergy becomes worse with each exposure, you should avoid products containing latex. While it is difficult to obtain full and accurate information on the latex content of products, you may become better informed by checking with suppliers before buying a product.
The following list highlights some (but not all) of the latex products you should avoid in the home:
- Rubber sink stoppers and sink mats
- Rubber or rubber-grip utensils
- Rubber electrical cords or water hoses
- Bath mats and floor rugs that have rubber backing
- Toothbrushes with rubber grips or handles
- Rubber tub toys
- Sanitary napkins (that contain rubber)
- Diapers that contain rubber
- Adult undergarments that contain rubber
- Waterproof bed pads containing rubber
- Undergarments, socks and other clothing with elastic bands that contain rubber
- Adhesives such as glue, paste, art supplies, glue pens
- Older Barbie dolls and other dolls that are made of rubber
- Rubber bands, mouse and keyboard cords, desktop and chair pads, rubber stamps
- Mouse and wrist pads containing rubber
- Keyboards and calculators with rubber keys or switches
- Pens with comfort grip or any rubber coating
- Remote controllers for TVs or VCRs with rubber grips or keys
- Camera, telescope or binocular eye pieces
- Bathing caps and elastic in bathing suits
What Products Should I Avoid Outside The Home?
- Grocery store checkout belts
- Restaurants where workers use latex gloves for food preparation (call ahead to ensure your safety)
- Auto races that emit tire and rubber particles
- ATM machine buttons (often made of rubber)
What If I Have To Go To The Doctor?
If you have a known latex allergy and must visit the doctor or dentist, inform the doctor of your latex allergy at least 24 hours before your scheduled appointment. The hospital or doctor's office should have a latex-free protocol that they follow for patients with latex allergies.
If you have to stay in the hospital, you will usually be given your own room, free of latex products.
Do I Have To Change My Diet?
Latex allergies may also cross over into food groups. Or if you are already allergic to certain foods, you may be at high risk for developing a latex allergy.
The following foods can trigger a latex-like allergic reaction because the proteins in them mimic latex proteins as they break down in the body:
Note: Not all people who have these food allergies will also have latex allergies.