Everyday we use products made of latex—balloons, rubber bands, condoms, rubber household gloves, rubber balls and Band-Aids, for example. For some people, though, contact with these products can cause discomfort or painful reactions. In some rare cases, it can cause death.
What is Latex?
The term "latex" refers to the sap of the Brazilian rubber tree or the products made from that sap. The term is used to mean "natural rubber products."
What Types of Reactions Are There?
You can have two different types of reaction from contact with latex. The most common reaction is contact dermatitis. This is a red, itchy rash that breaks out where latex has touched your skin. It appears 12 to 24 hours after contact.
Contact dermatitis usually is caused by frequent washing, harsh soaps and friction of putting on and taking off gloves. Sometimes it is caused by chemicals added to latex when products are made. This type of reaction is often more severe, with blisters and crusted sores. Areas of the body not in contact with the latex product are not affected.
Poison ivy causes a similar reaction. In the past 10 years, some people have begun to have an immediate hypersensitivity to latex. What happens is like an allergic reaction to an insect sting or to peanuts. Within minutes of contact, or even after inhaling glove dusting powder, an allergic person develops itching or hives, stuffy nose, sneezing, itchy eyes or asthma symptoms.
In some cases, the allergy can cause anaphylactic shock. This is a dangerous condition in which the blood vessels widen so much that blood pressure plummets. Symptoms include sweating, paleness, panting, nausea, rapid pulse, faintness, confusion and even passing out. With
out speedy treatment, this intense allergic reaction can cause death. (See the Asthma and Allergy Answer fact sheet, "What is Anaphylaxis").
What Causes a Reaction to Latex?
The reaction is caused by allergens—proteins in the sap of the rubber tree. Most experts believe that the allergy has surfaced recently as a result of the increased use of latex to protect people from infectious agents. There may be other causes as well. Man-made latex is not a problem.
Who Is Likely to Get a Reaction?
Perhaps one in every 1,000 people develops a latex allergy. Although rare, the condition has become common in certain high-risk groups.
The highest risk is in children with spina bifida—a condition in which the spine failed to form completely before birth. About three of every five children with spina bifida are allergic to latex.
Also at high risk are any children who have frequent and repeated medical treatments or lengthy surgery that involve the use of latex products. Many medical supplies, from gloves to tubing to enemas tips, are made of latex.
From 5 percent to 15 percent of health care workers and others who regularly wear latex gloves are allergic to latex. Health care workers and children who have other allergies and get contact dermatitis when they use latex gloves are more likely to develop a latex allergy.
Sometimes people with latex allergies experience a reaction to many tropical fruits, nuts and vegetables, particularly avocado, banana, chestnut, hazelnut, kiwi, raw potato, tomato, peaches, papaya, stone fruits (such as plums) or celery.
What Are the Symptoms?
Common early symptoms include:
Swelling, redness and itching after contact with rubber. Itching or swelling of the lips after blowing up balloons or around Band-Aids suggests latex allergy.
Swelling or itching of the mouth or tongue after a dental visit. Swelling and itching after medical exams such as vaginal and rectal exams or on contact with condoms or diaphragms.
Redness or itching of the hands, stuffy nose or asthma that occurs while wearing latex gloves or having frequent contact with latex products at work.
People highly allergic to latex may have severe reactions from contact with just a small amount of latex in the air. One person had a severe asthma attack after entering a room where children had blown up a few balloons.
Symptoms that suggest you may be allergic to latex should not be ignored. Constant contact with latex products—for example, intense exposure during surgery—can lead to more severe reactions. People also can develop chronic conditions such as occupational asthma.
How Is a Latex Allergy Diagnosed?
If you think you may be allergic to latex, see a doctor familiar with the condition. It can be diagnosed with a medical history, physical exam and either a blood test or skin sensitivity test. The blood test involves looking for latex antibodies in a blood sample. For the skin test, an extract of latex is used to scratch or prick the skin. If you are allergic to the product, redness or swelling may appear at the scratch. Your doctor compares your test results with your history and physical exam to make a diagnosis of latex allergy.
What Should I Do If I Am Allergic to Latex?
Avoid latex. The only treatment for latex allergy is to prevent any contact with latex products. Medications may help control symptoms. They cannot be relied on to prevent symptoms from later contact with latex, though.
To avoid airborne latex, ask co-workers to wear only non-latex gloves or latex gloves that are not powdered.
Avoid antihistamine medications, which may hide problems with latex in the air.
Always wear or carry a tag to identify your latex allergy in case you need emergency care.
Obtain a letter about your allergy from your doctor. Latex allergy has been recognized only recently. Many health care workers may not have heard of it or know how to treat it.
Ask doctors, dentists and others whether routine exams or treatment will expose you to latex. You may want to carry latex-free exam gloves with you to give your dentist or doctor.
Check labeling to make sure products contain no latex. Do not assume a product labeled "hypoallergenic" is latex-free.
Always carry injectable epinephrine, such as Ana-Kit or EpiPen. These products are used to treat reactions to insect bites and foods. Injecting epinephrine can save your life if you have a severe reaction. Immediately seek medical care.
Be aware that people with latex allergy may also develop food allergies. The food allergy can occur unexpectedly, and even the first attack can be severe. Never eat fresh fruits or vegetables or nuts without having an injectable epinephrine syringe at hand.