Latex allergies

Originally Published: April 4, 1997 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: July 3, 2012
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Dear Alice,

Can you tell us about latex allergies?

Dear Reader,

Latex products are made by processing a white-ish liquid or sap extracted from rubber trees. Proteins in this fluid are believed to be the cause of latex allergy — a potentially fatal allergic reaction. Some chemicals added during the processing can also cause more minor reactions in some people.

Latex products are found almost everywhere — in medical supplies, baby bottle nipples, balloons, gloves (including dishwashing gloves), condoms, diaphragms, adhesive tape, and rubber bands. In fact, latex can even stick to the powder used in latex gloves, become airborne, and affect people in that way. Due to this prevalence, it's important to be aware of the possibility of latex allergy.

Latex causes three types of reactions:

Irritant contact dermatitis
This is the most common reaction to latex, but is not actually an allergy. It is primarily caused by irritation of the skin from repeated glove use. Other causes may include frequent hand washing and drying, contact with cleaners and sanitizers, and/or repeated exposure to powders present in some latex gloves. Symptoms generally appear gradually over several days, but exposure to strong irritants can produce more immediate reactions in some people. Symptoms include dry or scaly skin, redness, mild itching, and cracking.
 
Allergic contact dermatitis (delayed hypersensitivity)
Allergic contact dermatitis is a sensitivity to chemicals added to latex along its way to becoming a final product. These chemicals cause skin reactions similar to those caused by poison ivy. Compared to irritant contact dermatitis, symptoms for allergic contact dermatitis usually come about sooner (within six to 48 hours), are often more acute, and can include redness, severe itching, swelling, blisters that ooze a clear fluid, and crusting.

Furthermore, people with this condition often believe it's spreading or contagious, which may not necessarily be the case. The time it takes for symptoms to appear on a certain part of the body can differ from other parts, depending upon the amount of chemical(s) to which a particular patch of skin is exposed and/or the thickness of that skin. Heavily exposed skin and thinner skin will likely react sooner than less exposed skin and thicker skin. Also, different parts of the body may come in contact with the chemicals at different times, which could also make it seem as if the condition were spreading.

Latex allergy (immediate hypersensitivity)
Of the three types, latex allergy can produce the most severe reaction. Latex allergy is a condition that develops as a person comes in contact with certain latex proteins. These proteins then cause that person to become sensitive to them. Further, repeated exposure can make things even worse and result in an allergic reaction. For some people, even the smallest amount of exposure can trigger allergic reactions.

Symptoms of latex allergy appear within minutes, or hours, after exposure to latex. The range of symptoms is wide. Mild reactions include redness, swelling, hives, or itching. More severe reactions include runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, scratchy throat, difficulty breathing, coughing, and wheezing. In some cases, a person may experience life-threatening anaphylaxis, an immediate and severe allergic reaction characterized by swelling, hives, severe difficulty breathing, sudden decrease in blood pressure, and shock. If not treated immediately, anaphylaxis can result in death.

Most people who come into everyday contact with latex do not have serious reactions, if any at all. Those who are at high risk for latex allergy include people who:

  • Are in frequent contact with latex (including health care workers, rubber industry workers, housekeepers, hairdressers, and food service workers)
  • Have had repeated surgeries, especially early in life
  • Have spina bifida (a birth defect of the central nervous system)
  • Have urogenital abnormalities
  • Are atopic (individuals who tend of have multiple allergic reactions)
  • Are allergic to certain kinds of food, especially avocados, bananas, chestnuts, kiwi fruits, papayas, potatoes, and tomatoes

People who suspect they are allergic to latex need to see a health care provider as soon as possible. People who react with symptoms to condoms and diaphragms, and/or have symptoms that usually call for a pelvic examination, especially need to be alert for a possible latex allergy. A latex allergy diagnosis can be made with a patient's medical history and tests. Furthermore, while no U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved skin tests for latex allergy are available currently, a skin test can diagnose allergic contact dermatitis.

People allergic to latex may be given certain medications to reduce the symptoms, but the most important and effective approach is latex avoidance. That is, reducing exposure to latex by using synthetic materials in place of latex, or using non-powdered, low-protein latex. Nearly all of the products that contain latex are also made in non-latex forms.

In the end, although most people are not allergic to latex, people who are exposed repeatedly to latex increase the risk of developing a latex allergy. Also, symptoms of a serious latex allergy can develop suddenly and without any previous and clear indications. As such, it's helpful to be familiar with its signs and symptoms in order to nip any serious problems in the bud.

Alice