In a latex allergy, your immune system identifies latex as a harmful substance. With wheezing, runny nose or anaphylaxis, your immune system triggers certain cells to produce immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies to fight the latex component (the allergen). The next time you come in contact with latex, the IgE antibodies sense it and signal your immune system to release histamine and other chemicals into your bloodstream. The more exposure you have, the more your immune system is likely to respond to latex (sensitization).

These chemicals cause a range of allergic signs and symptoms. Histamine is partly responsible for most allergic responses.

Latex allergy can occur in these ways:

  • Direct contact. The most common cause of latex allergy is direct contact with latex, such as by wearing latex gloves or by touching other latex-containing products.
  • Inhalation. You can develop a latex allergy by inhaling latex particles. Latex products, especially gloves, shed latex particles, which can become airborne. Cornstarch is sometimes used on the inside of gloves to make them easier to put on and remove. The cornstarch absorbs latex proteins, but when the gloves are snapped during application or removal, the latex-laden particles fly into the air. The amount of airborne latex from gloves differs greatly depending on the brand of glove used.

It's possible to have other reactions to latex, which aren't always allergies to the latex itself. They include:

  • Allergic contact dermatitis. This is a reaction to the chemical additives used during the manufacturing process. Signs and symptoms — usually a skin rash similar to that of poison ivy, including blisters — develop 24 to 48 hours after contact.
  • Irritant contact dermatitis. Not an allergy, this form of dermatitis most likely is an irritation caused by wearing rubber gloves or exposure to the powder inside them. Signs and symptoms include dry, itchy, irritated areas, usually on the hands.

Types of latex

Manufacturers produce two types of products from natural latex sources:

  • Hardened rubber. This type of latex is found in products such as athletic shoes, tires and rubber balls. Hardened rubber doesn't cause allergies in most people.
  • Dipped latex. Latex of this kind is found in some products that are stretchy, such as rubber gloves, balloons and condoms. Most allergic reactions to latex occur with products made of dipped latex because they're often used directly on the skin.
  • Other rubber. Rarely, some people who are sensitive to latex also may react to other rubber products, including erasers, rubber toy parts, rubber bands, rubber in medical devices and rubber in the elastic in clothing.

Not all latex products are made from natural sources. Products containing man-made (synthetic) latex, such as latex paint, are unlikely to cause a reaction because they don't contain the natural substance. Some waterproof sealants may contain natural rubber latex, however, so be sure to read the label before using them.

Latex-containing products

Thousands of consumer products contain latex or rubber, and many are found around the home. Common latex products include:

  • Dishwashing gloves
  • Carpeting
  • Waistbands on clothing
  • Balloons
  • Rubber toys
  • Hot water bottles
  • Baby bottle nipples
  • Disposable diapers
  • Sanitary pads
  • Rubber bands
  • Erasers
  • Condoms
  • Diaphragms
  • Swim goggles
  • Racket handles
  • Motorcycle and bicycle handgrips

Latex products are also found in health care settings. However, because of the problem of latex allergy, many health care facilities use nonlatex gloves. Other medical products that may contain latex or rubber include:

  • Blood pressure cuffs
  • Stethoscopes
  • Intravenous tubing
  • Syringes
  • Respirators
  • Electrode pads
  • Surgical masks
Nov. 16, 2011