Allergy to latex appears to be a relatively new and increasingly frequent problem. The reasons for this are not clear, but may include increased use of latex gloves over the past decade, and changes in the manufacturing of latex products.
What is Latex?
Latex is a milky fluid produced by rubber trees. Using different methods, latex can be processed into a variety of products, such as gloves and balloons. During manufacturing, chemicals are added to increase the speed of curing (vulcanization) and to protect the rubber from oxygen in the air. Products made completely of, or from blends of natural rubber latex and other compounds, are very common, ranging from rubber bands to car tires. Allergic reactions have primarily been caused by dipped latex products, especially gloves, balloons and condoms. Products made from crepe rubber, such as soles of shoes, are less likely to cause reactions. Most latex paints are not a problem since they do not contain natural latex. A few specialized waterproofing paints, however, do contain natural rubber latex.
What Types of Allergic Reactions Can Occur?
There are two types of allergic reactions to latex. The first is contact dermatitis, a poison ivy-like rash which appears 12-36 hours after contact with latex. This is most common on the hands of people who wear rubber gloves, but may occur on other parts of the body following contact with latex. The prevalence of this form of latex allergy does not seem to be increasing. Contact dermatitis is usually the result of sensitization to chemicals added during rubber processing. While very irritating, this form of allergy is not life-threatening.
Immediate or IgE antibody-mediated allergic reactions are potentially the most serious form of allergic reaction to latex. Like other common forms of allergy, these reactions occur in people who have previously become sensitized. With re-exposure, symptoms such as itching, redness, swelling, sneezing, and wheezing may occur. Rarely, anaphylaxis or life-threatening symptoms, such as severe trouble breathing and loss of blood pressure, are caused by latex exposure.
The severity of the immediate reaction depends upon the person's degree of sensitivity and the amount of latex allergen getting into the body. The greatest danger of severe reactions occurs when latex comes into contact with moist areas of the body such as the lips, because more of the allergen can rapidly be absorbed by the body.
Latex can also become airborne and cause respiratory symptoms. Latex allergen adheres to the cornstarch powder used on gloves. As gloves are used, the starch particles and latex allergen become airborne, where they can be inhaled or come into contact with the nose or eyes and cause symptoms. High concentrations have been measured in intensive care units and operating rooms, for example. The use of non-powdered gloves reduces the risk of these reactions.
The capacity of latex products, especially gloves, to cause allergic reactions varies enormously, partly by brand and partly by production lot.
It is estimated that at least one percent of the population in the United States has latex allergies. However, certain groups of individuals are at high risk for developing immediate allergic reactions from latex. Individuals with spina bifida (a congenital problem with the development of the spinal column) and those with congenital urinary tract problems seem to have a risk of nearly 50 percent, presumably from frequent exposure. The most severe reactions reported have occurred in health care settings, where 10 to 17 percent of health care workers have latex allergies. Others who may be at increased risk are those who have had many medical or surgical procedures, resulting in exposure to latex gloves. Even in normal adults, the risk of sensitization to latex may be as high as six percent.
Cross Reactions Between Latex and Foods
Latex-sensitive patients may also be allergic to some foods, especially bananas, avocados, kiwi fruit, and European chestnuts. This is because these foods contain some of the same allergens as those in latex.
- Substitute vinyl gloves for latex gloves. However, although adequate for many situations, vinyl gloves may not work well in some situations.
- Use synthetic latex gloves. Synthetic gloves work in nearly all situations where latex gloves work, including surgery, but they are more expensive.
- For individuals with contact reactions to latex, latex gloves made with different chemicals may work well.
Natural skin condoms do not contain latex and usually prevent pregnancy, but these condoms do not protect against HIV, which causes AIDS. Hopefully, synthetic rubber condoms, capable of preventing both pregnancy and viral infections, will soon become available.
This information is made available by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
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For more detailed information on Latex Allergies visit www.latexallergyresources.org