Latex allergy occurs when the body's immune system overreacts to proteins found in natural rubber latex. These proteins, also called allergens, are most often found in certain types of rubber gloves and latex condoms.
Latex comes from the rubber tree, which grows in Africa and Southeast Asia. Nearly half of patients who are allergic to latex are also allergic to certain plants that are related to the rubber tree, including avocado, banana, kiwi, and chestnuts.
Symptoms of a latex allergy may include runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, hives, and skin rashes. Some patients may experience a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. This reaction, which may lead to low blood pressure, difficulty breathing, and loss of consciousness, is potentially life threatening. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), about 220 cases of anaphylaxis and three deaths per year are attributed to latex allergies.
There are two main types of latex:
hardened rubber and dipped latex. Hardened rubber is found in products, such as sneakers, tires, and rubber balls. Hardened rubber does not cause allergies in most people. Dipped latex is typically found in stretchy products, such as rubber gloves, balloons, rubber bands, and condoms. Dipped latex products trigger most allergic reactions because they are often used directly against the skin.
Not all latex products are made from natural sources. For instance, products containing man-made latex, such as latex paint, do not usually trigger allergic reactions because they do not come into contact with the skin.
Some individuals who wear latex rubber gloves often, such as medical doctors, nurses, dentists, orthodontists, or personal care assistants, may develop a skin reaction called irritant contact dermatitis. This rash, which causes red, dry, and cracked skin on the hands, is not an allergic reaction because it does not involve the immune system. Irritant contact dermatitis is most likely caused by sweating or rubbing under the gloves or from soap or detergents left on the hands before wearing gloves. However, frequently wearing latex gloves also increases the risk of developing latex allergies.
The best treatment for latex allergies is to avoid products that contain latex. There are more than 40,000 products that contain latex. Many of these products have labels clearly stating that they contain latex or natural rubber. However, if there is ever any doubt, patients should call the manufacturer to determine whether or not a product contains latex. Patients should tell their healthcare providers if they are allergic to latex, and they should always wear a medical alert bracelet. Although many types of medical equipment and supplies may contain latex, most healthcare facilities in the United States have latex-free protocols. This means they are required to have latex-free products available for patients and employees who are allergic to latex.
Treatments, including antihistamines and corticosteroids, may help alleviate symptoms of an allergic reaction. If patients develop a severe and life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, immediate medical attention should be sought. Administration of ephedrine is necessary to avoid circulatory collapse and death. Individuals who have a history of anaphylaxis should carry a prescription epinephrine auto-injector (EpiPen®) with them at all times.
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Condoms: Patients who are allergic to latex should not use latex condoms. Instead, they should consider using polyurethane or lambskin condoms. However, condoms made of alternative products do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases (such as HIV, gonorrhea, or syphilis) as well as latex condoms.
Medical equipment and supplies: Most healthcare facilities in the United States are required to have latex-free products available to patients and employees who are allergic to latex. Certain medical equipment, including blood pressure cuffs, intravenous (IV) tubing, stethoscopes, syringes, respirators, electrode pads, and surgical masks may contain latex. Therefore, patients should always tell their healthcare providers, including dentists, orthodontists, nurses, and personal care assistants, if they are allergic to latex. They should also wear a medical alert bracelet at all times.
Orthodontic rubber bands: Orthodontic rubber bands, which are used to help straighten the alignment of the teeth, can trigger an allergic reaction in sensitive individuals. Patients who are allergic to latex should tell their orthodontists so non-latex bands or alternative methods are used instead.
Rubber gloves: Many rubber gloves are made from latex. Some latex gloves are coated with cornstarch powder, which the latex particles may stick to. When the gloves are snapped on or removed, cornstarch powder and latex allergens become airborne. An allergic reaction may develop if a patient inhales the allergen.
Rubber gloves are used as a protective barrier in healthcare settings to prevent the spread of diseases, such as HIV, hepatitis, and other infections. However, most healthcare facilities in the United States are required to have non-latex rubber gloves available for allergic individuals, and many facilities use non-latex rubber gloves as their standard preventative barrier. Non-latex gloves are equally effective at preventing the spread of disease as latex gloves.
Other: Other products that may contain latex allergens include swim caps, dishwashing gloves, carpeting, balloons, waistbands, hot water bottles, rubber toys, disposable diapers, baby bottle nipples, sanitary pads, rubber bands, erasers, diaphragms, swim goggles, racket handles, pacifiers, band aids, and motorcycle and bicycle handgrips.