Allergy to natural rubber (latex)
What is latex allergy?
Latex is natural rubber, a product made primarily from the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. Some people develop allergic reactions after repeated contact with latex, especially latex gloves. Allergy to latex is an increasing health problem.
What are the symptoms?
Latex reactions can vary from minor to life-threatening, or they may progress from a less serious reaction to a more serious one. Examples include:
- Skin reactions such as contact dermatitis, hives, or generalized itching.
- Respiratory reactions. A person who is having a mild respiratory reaction may sneeze, cough, or have a runny nose. A person who is having a severe respiratory reaction may develop shortness of breath from swelling of the throat (angioedema) or severe wheezing (allergic asthma).
- Life-threatening allergic reactions (anaphylaxis).
Who is affected by latex allergy?
Latex allergy usually affects people who are routinely exposed to rubber products, such as health care workers and rubber industry workers, and people who have had multiple surgeries or multiple medical procedures in which latex equipment and supplies were used.
What increases the risk of latex allergy?
People who have allergies to foods, such as bananas, chestnuts, kiwifruit, avocados, and tomatoes, have an increased risk of developing latex allergy. People with latex allergies may develop allergies to these foods because the protein in these foods is similar to the protein in rubber. Latex allergies are also more common in people who have a history of atopic dermatitis, a skin condition that causes intense itching and a red, raised rash.
Where is latex likely to be encountered?
Medical products that may contain latex include:
- Gloves, especially powdered latex gloves.
- Drains, tourniquets, urinary catheters, and wraps.
- Adhesives used for dressings and tapes.
Personal or household products that may contain latex include:
- Contraceptives, such as condoms or diaphragms.
- Diapers and sanitary pads.
- Pacifiers and baby bottle nipples.
- Balloons and rubber toys.
- Rubber bands.
- Computer mouse pads.
How is latex allergy diagnosed?
Latex allergy is diagnosed with a thorough medical history, physical exam, and tests. Tests may include a blood test to detect latex antibodies and glove-use tests and skin tests to detect an adverse reaction to latex exposure. Glove-use tests and skin tests should always be done by health professionals who are experienced and equipped to respond to a serious reaction.
How is it treated?
Some medications may help reduce the allergy symptoms, but complete latex avoidance, though difficult, is the most effective treatment. Serious reactions may need to be treated in a hospital emergency department.
If you have had a previous serious reaction to latex, you should carry and know how to use an allergy kit, which contains an injection of epinephrine.
How can I avoid using products containing latex if I have a known latex allergy?
- Avoid any skin contact with latex products. Health care workers should use hypoallergenic nonlatex gloves.
- Avoid breathing the air where powdered latex gloves are being used. The latex particles in the gloves stick to the cornstarch used to powder the gloves. When the cornstarch flies through the air, it can be inhaled, causing a lung reaction.