Latex is a milky sap produced by the rubber tree. It is blended with chemicals during manufacturing to give it elastic quality. Latex allergies are most common in people who have regular exposure to latex products like rubber gloves, condoms, balloons, rubber bands and erasers. This is why the allergy is very common among healthcare workers and people who have undergone multiple surgeries. We’ve heard about it, but what is a latex allergy and what are its treatments?
What is a Latex Allergy?
If you are allergic to latex, your body treats the substance as an allergen that sets off an allergic reaction.
Allergic reactions to latex range from mild to very severe. Each year, there are hundreds of case of anaphylaxis due to latex allergy. The severity of the reaction can worsen with repeated exposure to the substance.
In the 1980’s, the emergence of HIV became increasingly important to take precautions that would prevent the spread of infectious diseases. This effort resulted in universal precautions for protecting a person from infectious material like blood and other bodily fluids using protective barriers. This is where the latex glove came in.
The prevalence of latex allergy peaked at 3%-9.5% in the 1990’s, but have not fallen to less than 1% in countries where active latex avoidance measures are practiced.
Where is Latex Commonly Found?
Allergic reactions to products with natural rubber latex from the Hevea Brasiliensis tree in Africa and Asia occur when a person is sensitive to the proteins found in the material. Natural rubber latex should not be confused with synthetic rubber made from chemicals. Synthetic rubber products and “latex house paint” are not made with natural latex and do not trigger allergic reactions.
Latex is a common component to many medical supplies as well as consumer products, so it is difficult to avoid. This includes dental materials, first aid, handbags, athletic shoes, tires, underwear waistbands, toys, baby bottles, and pacifiers.
Latex Allergy Symptoms
There are a few different types of reactions that can occur with latex:
Delayed-type Contact Dermatitis
These symptoms occur 12 to 36 hours after contact with a latex product and includes:
- Red skin
- Scaly skin
- Itchy skin
It is important to note that this type of reaction is usually not a latex allergy but a reaction to the added chemicals in the rubber. Symptoms can be annoying but not life-threatening
Immediate Allergic Reactions
These reactions happen in people who have been exposed to natural latex for an extended period of time and have developed a sensitivity to the allergen. The latex proteins trigger a response from the immune system and includes the following symptoms:
- Runny nose
- Coughing or wheezing
- Itchy throat
- Watery, itchy eyes
The most serious allergic reaction will occur within minutes and it is life-threatening. Anaphylaxis can restrict your airways and cause a deficiency of oxygen in your cells. Other symptoms to identify anaphylaxis includes:
- Red, itchy rash
- Swollen throat and other areas of the body
- Chest tightness
- Hoarse voice
- Pale or red color to face and body
Latex Cross-Reactivity with Foods
Approximately half of people with this allergy have a history of reaction towards fruits and vegetables. These foods can cause symptoms in some latex-sensitive people.(1)
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology estimates that 50 percent of latex allergy sufferers have related allergies to certain foods. These foods have similar proteins to the allergen of latex. In these cases, your immune system reacts in the same way it does to the proteins in latex. This is known as cross-reactivity.
The following fruits and vegetables may cause a cross-reaction in some people:
It is also important to be aware of these other potential cross-reactive foods:
- Tree nuts and legumes including almonds, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, and walnuts
- Grains like wheat and rye
- Shellfish including crab, lobster, and shrimp
See a doctor if you have reactions to any of these foods
Reducing the Risk of a Latex Allergy
Latex is very common in the modern world so it may be difficult to limit your exposure and prevent an allergy from producing. Still, there are things you can do to reduce contact:
- Use non-latex gloves(vinyl gloves, powder-free gloves, hypoallergenic gloves)
- Tell daycare and healthcare providers(and dentists) about latex allergies
- Wear a medical ID bracelet detailing your allergies.
Management and Treatment
Once you acquire an allergy to latex, treatments depends of the severity of your reaction. An antihistamine can block histamine causing inflammation, itching and swelling. Corticosteroids may be used as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent for more severe symptoms. However, they can produce serious side effects if used for long periods of time.
If an allergic reaction occurs on the skin, hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion may help your skin heal.
Anaphylaxis is the most serious allergic reaction and can cause blood vessels to dilate and air passages in the lungs to narrow, leading to wheezing and drop in blood pressure. In serious cases, loss of consciousness and death can occur. This is why an emergency injection of epinephrine(adrenaline) is necessary to save a life in these situations.
If you have a severe latex allergy, consider carrying an emergency epinephrine kit.
Latex allergies are very rarely life-threatening. The key to preventing the symptoms is to limit your exposure as much as possible. This is very difficult to do because it is so prevalent in the first world. You can avoid the development of a latex allergy by taking a few precautions to avoid exposure. You can ask an allergist if your case is severe enough to warrant medical treatment.