Latex is a natural rubber made from the milky sap of the Brazilian rubber tree.
A latex allergy occurs when a sensitive person's immune system reacts to the normally harmless proteins in the sap as if they were invaders such as viruses or bacteria. A host of antibodies and chemicals including antihistamines are released, racing to the point of contact where they cause an inflammatory immune response.
The allergic reaction to latex may range from mild to severe and, in some cases, can even be life-threatening.
Latex allergies have been on the rise over the past two decades as latex has become more and more common in many consumer goods and medical applications.
Certain foods may trigger a latex allergy as well in a process known as cross-reactivity. Children and those in medical jobs are at particular risk from latex allergies.
Allergic reactions to latex most often take the form of a rash at the point of contact (contact dermatitis).
In some instances, however, such as in the case of powdered surgical gloves, the latex proteins may become airborne. When this happens, a hypersensitive person may unknowingly breathe them in and develop more severe reactions.
Some of these reactions, such as anaphylaxis, may be life-threatening.
Symptoms of a latex allergy include:
- itchy skin rashes (usually on the hands)
- hives or eczema
- swollen, red skin, lips, or tongue
- runny or stuffy nose
- shortness of breath (wheezing)
- abdominal pain
- rapid heartbeat
- dizziness or fainting
- anaphylactic shock (rarely)
Products That Contain Latex
Hundreds of products may contain latex (in particular, anything that can be stretched).
Items for the allergic person to avoid include:
- medical devices such as gloves, IV tubes, catheters, and blood pressure cuffs
- dentistry devices including orthodontic rubber bands and dental dams
- contraceptive products such as condoms and diaphragms
- clothing containing elastic bands such as pants or underwear, running shoes, and raincoats
- certain household products such as zippered storage bags, bathmats, some rugs, and rubber gloves
- infant's and children's items including pacifiers, bottle nipples, disposable diapers, and teething or other toys
- certain school or office supplies such as rubber bands, erasers, adhesive tape, rubber cement, and paint
- elastic bandages including Band-Aid brand bandages
- rubber balloons (mylar are fine)
Latex Cross-Reactivity With Certain Foods
Some individuals with a latex allergy may also be allergic to certain foods that contain similar proteins.
Foods that may cause a "cross-reaction" in some people include:
- fruits including apples, avocados, bananas, cherries figs, kiwis, grapes, melons, nectarines, papaya, passion fruit, pears, pineapple and strawberry
- vegetables such as carrots, celery, raw potatoes and tomatoes
- tree nuts and legumes including almonds, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans and walnuts
- grains including wheat and rye
- shellfish including crab, lobster and shrimp
A person who is allergic to any of the above foods should let his doctor know, as he may have an allergy to latex as well.
People at the Greatest Risk for a Latex Allergy
It is estimated that between five and ten percent of the general population has a latex allergy. The number of healthcare workers affected is much higher, however—up to 17 percent. The increased use of latex gloves is thought to be the main reason for the higher rates in this group.
Others who are at increased risk include:
- those with food-related cross-allergies (see above)
- children who have spina bifida or who have had multiple surgeries
- patients who require frequent medical procedures such as catheterization
- childcare providers, food service workers, or others who must wear latex gloves at their jobs
- people who work in rubber manufacturing or tire factories
Reducing the Risk of a Latex Allergy
Latex is so common in the modern world, it may be difficult to completely avoid exposure.
Some things allergy sufferers can do to reduce contact include:
- wear non-latex gloves (such as vinyl) rather than latex ones (only healthcare workers and others who are exposed to bodily fluids must wear latex—in those cases, powder-free gloves should be selected in order to prevent airborne exposure)
- tell daycare and healthcare providers (including dentists) about any latex allergies
- wear a medical ID bracelet detailing any allergies