Allergy to latex was first described in the late 1970s. Since then, it has been recognized to be a major health concern, especially among health care workers and other high risk groups. It has been estimated that as much as 6% of the adult population may be sensitized to latex and at risk of allergic symptoms upon exposure. Reactions to the latex allergen can be caused by direct contact or by inhalation of latex particles. Direct contact with proteins in the latex causes sensitization and subsequent allergic reactions.
Latex allergy is a reaction to certain proteins found in natural latex rubber. Latex is the milky fluid derived from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) found in Africa and Southeast Asia.
There are two types of products made from natural latex sources, dipped latex and hardened latex. Dipped latex products are responsible for most allergic reactions to latex due to the fact that they are commonly in contact with the skin. These products are usually stretchy. Common sources are balloons, rubber gloves, rubber bands, and condoms. Hardened rubber, on the other hand, is less commonly a cause of allergic reactions. These products include rubber balls, athletic shoes, soles of shoes, and tires. Products made from synthetic or man made latex, such as latex paints, are unlikely to cause a reaction.
Thousands of consumer products contain latex or rubber, therefore having the potential to cause allergic reactions. Common household products include:
In the health care arena, although much progress has been made in transitioning to non-latex products, latex can still be found in:
One common reaction is called delayed contact dermatitis. This type of reaction usually occurs 12-36 hours after latex contact and generally results in itching and a rash on the area of the body which came in direct contact with the latex allergen. This reaction is commonly caused by sensitization to chemicals that are added during the manufacturing and processing of the latex rubber. Although extremely irritating, this type of reaction is rarely dangerous and is not life threatening.
As opposed to the delayed allergic reaction, immediate type reactions after exposure to latex can be severe, resulting in itching, generalized redness, swelling, sneezing, and wheezing. In the most severely allergic individuals, exposure can lead to anaphylaxis, characterized by severe difficulty breathing and shock due to loss of blood pressure. It not treated immediately, such reactions can be fatal.
The severity of immediate systemic reactions is dependent on the amount of allergen exposed to and the degree of allergy sensitization in the patient. The greatest danger occurs if a very allergic individual is exposed to latex during an internal exam or during surgery, due to the rapid absorption of allergen into the body.
Highly allergic individuals can also have significant reactions upon inhaling latex proteins. Latex gloves, for example, commonly contain cornstarch powder. The latex proteins adhere to the powder and when it becomes airborne, it is readily breathed into the lungs. Because of the frequent use of these products, intensive care units and surgery suites can contain high concentrations of this highly allergenic powder. Fortunately, the limitation of use of synthetic or non-latex gloves in these high risk areas has greatly diminished the incidence of serious allergic reactions.
The greatest risk are to those who have had repeated exposure to latex. These groups include rubber industry workers, health care workers, and patients who have had numerous medical or surgical procedures. Approximately 50% of individuals with spina bifida (a congenital deformity of the spine) and those with congenital urinary tract problems are at risk. It has been estimated that 10% of dental and other health care workers are also at high risk.
Those with a latex allergy are at higher risk upon ingestion of certain foods that share allergenic proteins with latex. These foods include avocados, kiwi fruit, bananas, passion fruits, and chestnuts.
Although not easy, latex allergic individuals need to avoid exposure to the allergen as much as possible. Fortunately, manufacturers of consumer goods are working to produce alternative products with little or no latex.
Make your physician, dentist, clinic or hospital aware of your or your child’s allergy to latex. And, before any medical or dental procedure, remind your health care professional of the allergy. In addition, consider wearing a bracelet or necklace identifying your specific allergy. For those severely allergic, self-injectable epinephrine should be readily available at all times.