Latex allergy is a reaction to certain proteins found in natural rubber latex, a product manufactured from a milky fluid that comes from the rubber tree. If you have a latex allergy, your body mistakes latex for a harmful substance.
Latex allergy may cause allergic reactions ranging from sneezing or a runny nose to anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening condition. Your doctor may determine if you have a latex allergy or if you're at risk of developing a latex allergy.
Understanding latex allergy and becoming familiar with common sources of latex can help you prevent your own allergic reactions or those of someone else.
If you're allergic to latex, you're likely to react after being in contact with the latex in rubber gloves or by inhaling airborne latex particles, which can be released when latex gloves are removed. Latex allergy symptoms can range from mild to severe, depending on the degree of your sensitivity and the amount of latex allergen to which you're exposed. Your reaction can worsen with repeated exposure to latex.
Mild latex allergy symptoms include:
- Skin redness
- Hives or rash
Latex allergy symptoms that are more severe include:
- Runny nose
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Scratchy throat
- Difficulty breathing
Anaphylactic shock symptoms
The most serious allergic reaction to latex is an anaphylactic (an-uh-fuh-LAK-tik) response, which can be deadly. It's rarely the first reaction to latex exposure. Anaphylactic reactions develop immediately after latex exposure in highly sensitive people. Signs and symptoms include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Drop in blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
- Rapid or weak pulse
When to see a doctor
Seek emergency medical care if you think you're having an anaphylactic reaction.
If you have less severe reactions after exposure to latex, talk to your doctor. If possible, see your doctor when you're having a reaction, which will aid in making a diagnosis.
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.
Thousands of consumer products contain latex or rubber, and many are found around the home. Common latex products include:
- Dishwashing gloves
- Waistbands on clothing
- Rubber toys
- Hot water bottles
- Baby bottle nipples
- Disposable diapers
- Sanitary pads
- Rubber bands
- 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
- Intravenous tubing
- Electrode pads
- Surgical masks
It isn't clear why some people develop allergies while others don't. However, certain people are at greater risk of developing a latex allergy:
- Children with spina bifida. The risk of latex allergy is highest in children with spina bifida — a birth defect that affects the development of the spine. Children with this disorder often are exposed to latex products through early and frequent health care. About half of children with spina bifida may be allergic to latex.
- People with urinary tract abnormalities present at birth (congenital). Like children with spina bifida, people with congenital urinary tract problems are exposed to latex products through early and frequent health care.
- People who undergo multiple surgeries or medical procedures. Repeated exposure to latex gloves increases your risk of developing latex allergy.
- Health care workers. If you work in the health care field, your chances of developing an allergy are higher. The signs and symptoms of latex allergy may be similar to those of occupational asthma, a lung disease caused by inhaling workplace substances.
- Rubber industry workers. Repeated exposure to latex may increase sensitivity.
- People with a family history of allergies. You're at increased risk of latex allergy if other allergies, such as hay fever or hives, are common in your family.
Connection between food allergy and latex allergy
Latex allergy also is related to certain foods. Foods such as avocados, bananas, chestnuts, kiwis and passion fruits contain some of the same allergens found in latex. If you're allergic to latex, you have a greater chance of also being allergic to these foods.
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or a general practitioner. However, in some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred immediately to a doctor who specializes in allergies (allergist).
To be sure you get the information you need, it's good to be prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
- Write down any symptoms you're experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for which you scheduled the appointment.
- Document any exposure to latex, when it occurred and what type of reaction you had.
- Write down key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
- Make a list of all medications you're taking, including vitamins and supplements.
- Take a family member or friend, if possible. Sometimes it can be difficult to soak up all the information provided to you during an appointment. Someone who accompanies you may remember something that you missed or forgot.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
Preparing a list of questions before your appointment will help you make the most of your time with your doctor. List your questions from most important to least important. For latex allergy, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What is likely causing my symptoms or condition?
- What are other possible causes for my symptoms or condition?
- What kinds of tests do I need?
- What's the best treatment?
- What are the alternatives to the primary approach that you're suggesting?
- I have these other health conditions. How can I best manage them together?
- How can I avoid contact with latex?
- Are there any brochures or other printed material that I can take home with me? What websites do you recommend visiting?
In addition to the questions that you've prepared, don't hesitate to ask for clarification of anything you don't understand.
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions. Being ready to answer them may reserve time to go over any points you want to spend more time on. Your doctor may ask:
- When did you first begin experiencing symptoms?
- Have your symptoms been continuous or occasional?
- How severe are your symptoms?
- Do you have any allergies, including hay fever or allergies to certain foods?
- Is there a history of allergies in your family?
- Have you been exposed to latex products?
- If you had symptoms after wearing latex gloves, how long did it take for the symptoms to develop?
- What surgeries have you had and when?
What you can do in the meantime
If you suspect you have a latex allergy, do your best to avoid contact with anything that contains latex.
Your doctor will want to know your history of latex allergy experiences, and other allergy signs and symptoms. Your doctor may conduct a physical examination to identify or exclude other medical problems.
He or she may also recommend one or both of the following tests:
- Skin test. A test in which your skin is pricked and exposed to latex can determine your reaction to latex. In this test, small amounts of latex are placed on the skin of your forearm or back. Your skin is then pricked with a needle, to allow a tiny amount of the substance beneath your skin surface. If you're allergic to a particular substance being tested, you develop a raised bump (allergic reaction). Only specialized allergy centers are able to perform skin tests for latex allergy.
- Blood test. A blood test can measure your immune system's response to latex by assessing the amount of allergy-type antibodies in your bloodstream, known as immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. Your blood sample is sent to a medical laboratory, where it can be tested for sensitivity to latex.
Although medications are available to reduce the symptoms of latex allergy, there is no cure for latex allergy. Treatment is based on prevention. The only way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid products that contain latex.
However, despite your best efforts to avoid latex, you may come into contact with it. If you've had a previous severe allergic reaction to latex, you may need to carry injectable epinephrine with you at all times. If you go into anaphylactic shock, you may need:
- An emergency injection of adrenaline (epinephrine)
- A trip to the emergency room
For less severe allergies, your doctor may prescribe antihistamines, which you can take after exposure to an allergen to control your reaction and help relieve discomfort. Creams may relieve skin reactions brought on by a latex allergy.
The best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid latex. Take these measures:
- Reduce your exposure. Limit the number of latex products with which you come into contact. Most latex products have suitable alternatives.
- Talk to your employer. Discuss reducing the number of latex products you might come in contact with at work. The Americans with Disabilities Act covers people with severe allergies to substances such as latex. If you are otherwise qualified for a job, but can no longer work with latex because of your allergy, work with your employer to determine other options and make reasonable accommodations.
- Inform your health care professionals. Be sure to tell your doctors, dentists and nurses about your allergy.
- Inform and educate your children's teachers, child care workers, camp personnel, baby sitters and anyone else who may be responsible for their care if your children are allergic to latex.
- Choose alternative gloves. If you must wear gloves at work, choose gloves made without latex. Vinyl or nitrile gloves work in many situations, but aren't as effective at protecting you from hepatitis or HIV transmission. Many other types of synthetic gloves work just as well as latex gloves for stopping disease transmission, but they can be more expensive.
- Carry nonlatex gloves. You'll have them available in case of a medical or dental emergency.
- Avoid inhaling latex. Stay away from areas of your workplace where other workers may be wearing latex gloves. Request that the people you work with use gloves that aren't powdered with cornstarch.
- Wear a medical alert bracelet. Always keep identification on you or with you that clearly alerts others of any allergies you have.
- Be wary of products labeled 'hypoallergenic.' This labeling doesn't mean these products don't contain latex. In this context, "hypoallergenic" usually indicates fewer chemicals were used in the latex production process.
- Ask for advice. Talk to your doctor about your latex allergy. He or she might be able to suggest other ways you can avoid latex in your daily life and reduce your chances of an allergic reaction. Your doctor might also suggest emergency medication to keep with you in case you have a severe reaction to latex.
- Use nonlatex condoms. If you're allergic to latex, consider using natural skin condoms, or use another type of birth control. Keep in mind that natural skin condoms don't protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Synthetic rubber condoms offer some protection from STIs. Read the package label to see what the condom is made of and whether it's recommended for disease prevention.
Nov. 16, 2011
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