Latex allergy is a reaction to certain proteins found in natural rubber latex, a product made from the rubber tree. If you have a latex allergy, your body mistakes latex for a harmful substance.
Latex allergy may cause itchy skin and hives or even anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening condition that can cause throat swelling and severe difficulty breathing. Your doctor can determine if you have a latex allergy or if you're at risk of developing a latex allergy.
Understanding latex allergy and knowing common sources of latex can help you prevent allergic reactions.
If you're allergic to latex, you're likely to have symptoms after touching latex rubber products, such as gloves or balloons. You can also have symptoms if you breathe in latex particles that are released into the air when someone removes latex gloves.
Latex allergy symptoms range from mild to severe. A reaction depends on how sensitive you are to latex and the amount of latex you touch or inhale. Your reaction can become worse with each additional latex exposure.
Mild latex allergy symptoms include:
- Skin redness
- Hives or rash
- Runny nose
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Scratchy throat
- Difficulty breathing
Life-threatening symptoms: Anaphylaxis
The most serious allergic reaction to latex is anaphylaxis, which can be deadly. An anaphylactic (an-uh-fuh-LAK-tik) reaction develops immediately after latex exposure in highly sensitive people, but it rarely happens the first time you're exposed.
Signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Hives or swelling
- Nausea and vomiting
- Drop in blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
- Rapid or weak pulse
When to see a doctor
Seek emergency medical care if you are having or 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 reacting, which will aid in diagnosis.
In a latex allergy, your immune system identifies latex as a harmful substance and triggers certain antibodies to fight it off. The next time you're exposed to latex, these antibodies tell your immune system to release histamine and other chemicals into your bloodstream, producing a range of allergy signs and symptoms. The more times you are exposed to latex, the more strongly your immune system is likely to respond. This is called sensitization.
Latex allergy can occur in these ways:
- Direct contact. The most common cause of latex allergy involves touching latex-containing products, including latex gloves, condoms and balloons.
- Inhalation. Latex products, especially gloves, release latex particles, which you can breathe in when they become airborne. The amount of airborne latex from gloves differs greatly depending on the brand of glove used.
It's possible to have other skin reactions when using latex. They include:
- Allergic contact dermatitis. This reaction results from the chemical additives used during manufacturing. The main sign is a skin rash with formation of blisters 24 to 48 hours after exposure, similar to poison ivy.
- Irritant contact dermatitis. Not an allergy, this skin irritation is caused by wearing rubber gloves or exposure to the powder inside them. Signs and symptoms include dry, itchy, irritated areas, usually on the hands.
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.
Certain people are at greater risk of developing a latex allergy:
- People with spina bifida. The risk of latex allergy is highest in people with spina bifida — a birth defect that affects the development of the spine. People with this disorder often are exposed to latex products through early and frequent health care. People with spina bifida should always avoid latex products.
- People who undergo multiple surgeries or medical procedures. Repeated exposure to latex gloves and medical products increases your risk of developing latex allergy.
- Health care workers. If you work in health care, you're at increased risk of developing a latex allergy.
- Rubber industry workers. Repeated exposure to latex may increase sensitivity.
- People with a personal or family history of allergies. You're at increased risk of latex allergy if you have other allergies — such as hay fever or a food allergy — or they're common in your family.
Connection between food allergy and latex allergy
Certain fruits contain the same allergens found in latex. They include:
- Passion fruit
If you're allergic to latex, you have a greater chance of also being allergic to these foods.
Many common products contain latex, but you can usually find a suitable option. Prevent an allergic reaction to latex by avoiding these products:
- Dishwashing gloves
- Some types of carpeting
- Rubber toys
- Hot water bottles
- Baby bottle nipples
- Some disposable diapers
- Rubber bands
- Swim goggles
- Racket handles
- Motorcycle and bicycle handgrips
- Blood pressure cuffs
- Intravenous tubing
- Electrode pads
- Surgical masks
- Dental dams
Many health care facilities use nonlatex gloves. However, because other medical products may contain latex or rubber, be sure to tell doctors, nurses, dentists and other health care workers about your allergy before all exams or procedures. Wearing a medical alert bracelet can inform others of your latex allergy.