Latex is a natural rubber made from the milky sap of the Brazilian rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis. Most people know about the substance because of the gloves that are made out of it. But the rubber is also used in a variety of other products. Similar proteins are even found in popular foods.
A latex allergy occurs when a person's immune system reacts to the normally harmless proteins 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 invasion where they cause an inflammatory immune response.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, latex allergies affect 1 to 6 percent of Americans. An allergic reaction to latex may range from mild to severe. In some cases, it can even be life-threatening. Learn more about the signs of latex allergy and how you can prevent this potentially dangerous condition.
Allergic reactions to latex most often take the form of a rash at the point of contact (known as contact dermatitis). Signs may include:
- itchy hands
- skin rash, that may be warm to the touch
- eczema (denoted as weeping or cracking skin)
Such reactions are usually temporary. They may begin within minutes of exposure but may also take several hours to develop. You may need hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to soothe any rashes that develop.
Latex proteins can sometimes become airborne. When this happens, a hypersensitive person may unknowingly breathe them in and develop more severe reactions. These can include:
- swollen and red skin, lips, or tongue
- runny or stuffy nose
- shortness of breath (with or without wheezing)
- abdominal pain
- rapid heartbeat
Anaphylaxis is a rare reaction to latex, and it can be life-threatening. The symptoms are similar to airborne sensitivities, but much more severe. Anaphylactic shock can cause severe breathing difficulties and even faintness.
Hundreds of products are known to contain latex (including most items that can be stretched). Try avoiding the following items:
- medical devices such as gloves, intravenous 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 and children 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 balloons are fine)
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology estimates that 50 percent of latex allergy sufferers also have other kinds of allergies. Some people with a latex allergy may also be allergic to certain foods that contain similar proteins. In these cases, your body reacts similarly to these allergens because they contain proteins are similar in structure to the proteins in latex; this is known as cross-reactivity.
Fruits and Vegetables
The following foods may cause a cross-reaction in some people:
It’s also important to be cautious of these other potential cross-reactive foods:
- tree nuts and legumes including almonds, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, and walnuts
- grains including wheat and rye
- shellfish including crab, lobster, and shrimp
You should see a doctor if you have reactions to any of the above foods.
The number of healthcare workers affected by latex allergies is much higher than average. In fact, the CDC estimates that up to 12 percent of all healthcare workers have the allergy. The increased use and exposure to latex 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
- 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
- people who work in rubber manufacturing or tire factories
Latex is so common in the modern world, it may be difficult to completely avoid exposure. Still, there are some things you can do to reduce contact. These include:
- use non-latex gloves (such as vinyl gloves, powder-free gloves, hypoallergenic gloves, or glove liners) rather than latex ones
- tell daycare and healthcare providers (including dentists) about any latex allergies
- wear a medical ID bracelet detailing any allergies
Latex allergies are rarely life-threatening. The key to preventing the symptoms is to limit your exposure as much as possible. This can be easier said than done if you’re exposed to latex for work. Still, you can avoid symptoms without changing your lifestyle if you take a few extra precautions. Ask an allergist if your case is severe enough to warrant medical treatment.