Latex allergy is a reaction to proteins in rubber tree sap or natural rubber latex used to manufacture products ranging from surgical gloves to helium balloons.
Some of the places you might find latex include latex gloves; stethoscopes and intravenous drug ports; rubber bands and erasers; scuba suits; handgrips on bicycles and tennis racquets; balloons; pacifiers and baby bottle nipples; fasteners on disposable diapers; some carpet backings and pillows; raincoats and boots. Synthetic rubber products, including latex house paints (which don’t actually contain any latex), usually do not cause problems for latex-sensitive people.
How does someone become allergic to latex?
People who already have other allergies are at greater risk for developing latex allergy because their bodies are predisposed to overreact to proteins such as latex. However, healthcare workers are at the highest risk because of their exposure to latex gloves and other medical equipment.
Latex allergens can get into your immune system several ways:
Inhaling allergens: Latex allergens can become airborne from any product made with latex, especially latex balloons and latex gloves. The cornstarch powder used inside latex gloves carries traces of latex allergen with it into the air (and into your lungs).
Absorbing allergens through the skin: If you have a cut, sore or irritated area on your hands (or other body part) and touch a latex product, the allergens have an open door to your immune system.
Absorbing allergens internally: Your body tissue can absorb latex allergens when a doctor or dentist does an examination wearing latex gloves, when a latex injection port is inserted for use with intravenous medications or even when you get a shot – stoppers on medication vials can contain latex.
What are latex allergy symptoms?
Reactions to latex range from localized skin symptoms to systemic (whole body) reactions and even anaphylaxis.
Most reactions to latex gloves are not allergic reactions to latex, but contact dermatitis caused by chemicals inside the gloves. Symptoms include a red, bumpy rash and itchy skin that can lead to blisters, sometimes hours after touching a latex product (like breaking out from poison ivy the day after a camping trip). This kind of localized reaction can be an irritant reaction or an immunologic type IV (delayed-type) hypersensitivity.
A systemic allergic reaction to latex, also known as type I immediate allergic reaction, can cause symptoms including hives, sneezing, nasal congestion, tingling lips, tongue and throat swelling, coughing and wheezing, nausea, abdominal cramping, and facial swelling with itchy, watery eyes. Which of these symptoms a person will experience depends on how sensitive they are to latex and how much latex allergen they were exposed to.
Some people with type I latex allergy will develop anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction that involves multiple organ systems (skin, respiratory, gastrointestinal and/or cardiovascular). Anaphylaxis can lead to trouble breathing and loss of consciousness associated with a dramatic and sometimes fatal drop in blood pressure – anaphylactic shock.
No two people with latex allergy are alike. A run-in with a latex balloon may give one person itchy hands but cause another to stop breathing. Local allergic reactions don’t always signal the onset of systemic allergic reactions; a person could have a local allergic reaction every time he comes into contact with latex. On the other hand, a person who develops latex allergy could go straight to a systemic allergic reaction and possibly anaphylactic shock.
Latex and food: People with latex allergy can also have an allergic reaction to foods that contain proteins similar to those found in latex. This reaction is called cross-reactivity and is most frequently caused by bananas, avocados, kiwi fruit and chestnuts.
Diagnosing latex allergy
If you suspect you are allergic to latex, make an appointment to see a board- certified allergist. Be prepared with as much medical history as possible, including where you were when you had reactions and what latex products you came into contact with. Your doctor will probably arrange for a blood test to look for latex-specific IgE antibodies in your system, which will show that your immune system has developed latex sensitivity. Skin prick tests are not normally used to detect latex allergy because there is no standardized latex solution approved in the U.S.
Once diagnosed with latex allergy, the only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid latex. However, since accidental exposure can occur and it’s impossible to predict whether a reaction will turn into anaphylaxis, you should take all allergic reactions seriously and carry two epinephrine auto-injectors.
For more information on latex allergy, please visit www.LatexAllergyResources.org.