Natural rubber latex, a milky fluid found in rubber trees, is used to make some gloves, condoms, balloons, rubber bands, erasers and toys. Latex can also be found in bottle nipples and pacifiers. It may be surprising, but latex paints do not contain any natural rubber latex protein.
Latex allergy was unusual until the late 1980s when more healthcare workers began using powdered latex gloves to control infections. In the 1990s, manufacturers found ways to make gloves with synthetic latex and/or powder-free, so the number of new cases has decreased.
Reactions to Latex
Allergy symptoms are the result of a chain reaction that starts in the immune system. Your immune system controls how your body defends itself. If you have an allergy, your immune system identifies something that is typically harmless as an invader or allergen. With latex allergy, it overreacts by producing antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE) that can react with contaminating proteins found in the natural rubber latex. These antibodies travel to cells that release chemicals, causing an allergic reaction. This reaction usually appears in the nose, lungs, throat, sinuses, ears, lining of the stomach or on the skin.
People with this allergy have symptoms such as urticaria or hives, itching or flushing, swelling, sneezing, runny nose, cough, wheeze, shortness of breath, chest tightness, nausea, dizziness or lightheadedness. Any combination of these symptoms can be a sign of anaphylaxis (an-a-fi-LAK-sis), a life-threatening reaction that needs immediate medical attention.
Other chemicals used to make latex gloves can cause a delayed onset rash which only forms where the material touches the skin. This is called contact dermatitis. Red, itchy bumps or blisters usually appear within 12 to 48 hours. These symptoms are irritating, but not life-threatening.
Latex can also become airborne and cause respiratory symptoms. For example, latex proteins can attach to the cornstarch powder used in latex gloves. As powdered latex gloves are used, the starch particles and latex allergens become airborne, where they can be inhaled or come into contact with your nose or eyes and cause symptoms. High concentrations of this allergenic powder have been measured in intensive care units and operating rooms. Using non-powdered latex gloves, or synthetic (vinyl, nitrile) gloves reduces the risk of these reactions. The capacity of latex products – especially gloves – to cause allergic reactions varies enormously by brand and by production lot.
Treating Latex Allergy
There is no cure for latex allergy. People with severe reactions must simply avoid latex.
The first step in living with a latex allergy is being aware of the problem. An allergist / immunologist, often referred to as an allergist, has the knowledge and experience to diagnose the problem and develop a treatment plan.
Your allergist may prescribe an antihistamine to take for mild latex allergy symptoms. Your allergist may also prescribe epinephrine, or adrenaline, to keep with you in case you have a severe reaction to latex. Your physician can help decide whether you should wear a bracelet that alerts people about your allergy.
If your allergy is severe, it is important to tell your family, employer, school personnel and healthcare providers about your allergy and have an action plan. Remember, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers people with severe allergies to substances such as latex. Talk with your employer about your options.
If you need surgery, ask that everything be latex-free.
If you have trouble breathing when you are around latex, stay away from areas where powdered gloves are used and avoid all direct contact with latex.
If you must wear gloves, try substituting vinyl or nitrile gloves for latex. Synthetic latex gloves do not contain natural latex and are another option. These work in nearly all situations, including surgery, but they may be more expensive. If you tend to get a skin rash reaction to latex, latex gloves made without additional chemicals may be a good choice.
Latex condoms may cause serious allergic reactions in some people. If either partner has a latex allergy, synthetic rubber condoms are the best choice, although natural skin condoms may be used. Natural skin condoms are not recommended for the protection against sexually transmitted infections (STI's) or the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Latex balloons have also been known to cause serious reactions in those with a latex allergy. Avoid direct contact (especially blowing up balloons) and those with trouble breathing when exposed to latex or powdered latex should be cautious when entering enclosed spaces containing rubber balloons (such as in parties or when used as decorations).
Who is Most at Risk?
Healthcare and rubber industry workers are at more risk for developing serious allergic reactions to latex. Also at increased risk are people who have had multiple medical procedures or surgeries. This is because the greatest danger of a severe reaction happens when latex comes in contact with moist areas of the body, such as during surgery.
If you have a latex allergy, you also have a greater risk of being allergic to certain foods including bananas, avocados, kiwi fruit and European chestnuts. These foods and latex share certain proteins which cause a reaction in people with this allergy.
• People who react to latex typically develop a skin rash. This is irritating, but not life-threatening.
• However, if you have trouble breathing when you are around latex, or if you get a combination of symptoms, get immediate medical attention. These symptoms include hives, itching or flushing, swelling, sneezing, runny nose, cough, wheeze, shortness of breath, chest tightness, nausea, dizziness or lightheadedness.
• There is no cure for latex allergy. People with severe reactions must avoid latex.
•An allergist is the best physician to determine if you are allergic to latex and help you develop a treatment plan.
• The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers people with severe allergies to substances such as latex. Talk with your employer about your options.
The AAAAI's Find an Allergist / Immunologist service is a trusted resource to help you find a specialist close to home.
Find out more about latex allergies.
This article has been reviewed by Andrew Moore , MD, FAAAAI