In Search of Latex-Safe Healthcare
Working as a hospital pharmacist in the 1980s, Cindy Hespe often wore powdered latex gloves to prepare intravenous therapy. “I didn’t realize I had a latex allergy at the time,” she says.
The red, cracked skin on her hands? Just a heat rash, Cindy thought. Since she was often exposed to penicillin in the pharmacy, she attributed bouts of runny nose and puffy eyes to her penicillin allergy.
After a hiatus from hospital practice, Cindy returned in the early 1990s but this time did not wear latex gloves. Repeated exposures to latex through medical, surgical and dental care, however, caused her symptoms to worsen.
Cindy first experienced anaphylaxis – a severe allergic reaction – in 2003 after eating two bites of a restaurant meal that it turned out was prepared by a chef who wore latex gloves.
“My life changed drastically,” she says. “I now react to airborne latex proteins from latex balloons or latex gloves being snapped on or off near me. I react whenever I touch any product containing latex.”
Cindy, who currently works as a pharmacy journal editor in California, says it’s challenging to find latex-safe healthcare. In a Q&A interview, she discusses how she manages her allergy:
Q: How difficult is it for you to find latex-safe medical care?
Cindy: Many healthcare professionals believe “everything is latex-free these days,” but some hospitals still allow latex gloves in surgery and staff don’t recognize hidden sources of latex like bandages, wraps or blood pressure cuffs.
In one community, I couldn’t find a latex-safe dentist or gynecologist; I have yet to find a physical therapy office that is latex-safe. I have found that many doctors, nurses and pharmacists don’t know the cork in injectable medication vials can contain latex.
People with latex allergy must learn to advocate for themselves and never assume healthcare workers fully understand their condition. There is no such thing as a latex-free facility or environment, but it can be made latex-safe.
Q: How do you build trust?
Cindy: What really matters is how well the healthcare provider will listen and hopefully form a partnership with you. I always ask a lot of questions about what medical products are used in a healthcare facility and whether they contain latex. I bring articles about latex allergy with me to every appointment to educate staff.
Prior to one diagnostic surgical procedure, I informed the surgeon, her staff, the hospital scheduler, and the pre-surgery nurse about my allergy and that all equipment and medications needed to be latex-free. Sometimes things don’t go as planned, no matter how thorough you are. My procedure was cancelled because the anesthesiologist did not feel latex-safe care at that facility was possible.
In another surgery, the surgeon and anesthesiologist requested everything be latex-safe, but the operating room nurse and pharmacist didn’t anticipate I would need a neuromuscular blocker medication. I was under anesthesia unnecessarily for two hours while physicians called drug manufacturers and searched online for a latex-safe neuromuscular blocker.
Q: Latex is common in thousands of products. How vigilant do you have to be to avoid exposure?
Cindy: Latex-free consumer products are available for almost everything, but they’re often expensive. Researching and verifying products as latex-free is time well spent.
I have called manufacturers for latex information on clothing, medicine, office supplies, food, appliances, bandages, even hairbrushes, toothbrushes and hygiene products – pretty much anything I bring into my home.
My hair salon can’t use latex gloves, and I warn plumbers, painters and electricians to not bring latex into my home. I never step in a gym due to prevalence of spandex, stretch bands and yoga mats. I pleaded for no balloons at my son’s graduation ceremony so that I could attend.
Restaurants are a huge challenge. Many chefs wear latex gloves for food preparation, not knowing that latex proteins can transfer to the food. Even though I ask restaurant staff about latex glove and utensil use, very few are trained in latex allergy. The good news is, five states have banned latex glove use for food prep: Arizona, Connecticut, Hawaii, Oregon and Rhode Island.
Q: What advice do you give other people with latex allergy?
Cindy: Latex allergy often progresses with additional exposures, and there is no cure. While medications can reduce symptoms, the only preventive measure is to avoid latex. By minimizing exposure, you decrease the chances of a severe allergic reaction, or anaphylaxis.
- Latex allergy is complex and each person’s reactions are often unique.
- Find a board-certified allergist who is knowledgeable about latex allergy and develop an action plan for dealing with reactions.
- Always wear a medical alert bracelet and carry two epinephrine auto-injectors to treat anaphylaxis.
- Be aware of “cross-reactive” foods with proteins similar to latex; these may produce allergy symptoms in people with latex allergy. These foods include avocado, banana, kiwi, chestnut, and more.
- Educate yourself and those around you about latex allergy. Find resources at American Latex Allergy Association (LatexAllergyResources.org) and Allergy & Asthma Network (www.AllergyAsthmaNetwork.org).
- Latex allergy may be covered under the American with Disability Act (ADA), similar to other severe allergies.
Reviewed by Sue Lockwood, American Latex Allergy Association