Latex allergy describes a range of allergic reactions to substances in natural latex. It most commonly occurs due to contact with latex gloves and produces a range of symptoms, some of which can be serious.
Allergic reactions appear when a person’s immune system reacts to nontoxic substances, in this case, latex.
This article covers the types of latex allergy, plus their symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment.
Latex is a milky sap produced by some plants, including the tropical rubber tree. It is a mixture of water, sugar, and proteins. Plants usually release latex after they are injured, in the same way that humans bleed following an injury. Plants use latex as a defense against insects.
Natural latex is usually white but can be scarlet, orange, and yellow. In many modern products, latex is synthesized, rather than being taken from natural sources.
Although rubber gloves are the main source of allergic reactions to latex, it is also used in a wide range of products, such as condoms and some medical devices. Latex is used in over 40,000 products with many different uses.
According to the United States Department of Labor, 8-12 percent of healthcare workers are thought to have a latex allergy, as well as up to 68 percent of all spina bifida patients (due to regular surgical procedures). However, overall, less than 1 percent of the general population is allergic.
Allergic people’s immune systems identify latex as a pathogen – a substance or organism that harms health. The immune system triggers cells in the body to produce antibodies that fight the latex component. The next time the body comes into contact with latex, the antibodies detect it and signal the immune system to release chemicals, including histamine into the bloodstream.
The more a susceptible person is exposed to latex, the greater their immune reaction is likely to be – this is called sensitization.
During manufacturing, latex is often modified. Sometimes, the product is not thoroughly washed. As a result, more “free” latex is present on the surface. This “free” latex is responsible for a significant proportion of latex allergies.
Free latex easily sticks to the powder that is often used in surgical gloves. During use, the gloves frequently “snap” when putting them on or taking them off. This snapping sends the powder into the air. Inhaled latex can be a serious allergic problem.
We’ll take a look at the most common types of latex allergy below.
Latex hypersensitivity (type 1)
This is a serious and rare form of allergy causing a severe immediate reaction that can be life-threatening. Some people with type 1 latex hypersensitivity might also react in a similar way to bee stings.
Symptoms of latex hypersensitivity include:
- rhinitis – inflammation and irritation of the inside of the nose
- conjunctivitis – inflammation of the covering of the white part of the eye
- severe itching
- gastrointestinal problems
Symptoms may progress to:
People who are severely allergic to latex can react to clothes, shoes, and other things that contain natural rubber latex (elastic bands, rubber gloves, condoms, pacifiers, baby-bottle nipples, balloons, cars).
People with this type of allergy are very sensitive – a type 1 reaction can be triggered by exposure to airborne particles resulting from blowing up balloons. This can happen even if the person is not present while the balloons are being inflated.
Allergic contact dermatitis
People with allergic contact dermatitis have a delayed skin reaction and a rash after contact with latex.
Signs and symptoms can affect all of the skin, they include:
Allergic contact dermatitis is caused by the additives and chemicals used to process the rubber. Today, there are tests that determine which chemical(s) the person is allergic to. As soon as they find out, they can then avoid products that are processed with that chemical.
Irritant contact dermatitis
This is the most common type of reaction and also the mildest. It causes dry, itchy, irritated areas on the skin. Burning and scaling lesions of the skin are most often located on the patient’s hands.
The skin becomes irritated after using gloves, frequent hand-washing, incomplete drying, and exposure to hand sanitizers, as well as the talcum powder substance that gloves are coated in.
Some people are genetically predisposed to be allergic to latex. However, repeated exposure to latex is necessary for an allergy to develop. People at increased risk include those who are:
- Healthcare workers – in healthcare settings, latex is everywhere.
- People who have had multiple surgical procedures, especially in childhood.
- People with a defect in their bone marrow cells.
- Patients who require regular or continuous urinary catheters with a rubber tip.
- Spinal surgery patients.
- Those with eczema.
- Individuals affected by asthma.
- Employees who work distributing or delivering latex products.
- Rubber industry workers.
- People who work in car tire factories.
- Condom users.
Also, people with allergies have an increased risk; especially those with allergies to plant foods, such as mango, kiwi, avocado, pineapple, banana, chestnuts, strawberry, and passion fruit (see section below: “What is a cross-reaction?”).
Examples of products that may contain latex:
- blood pressure cuffs
- bottle nipples
- dental items, such as dams and orthodontic rubber bands
- rubber gloves
- IV (intravenous) tubes
- elastic waistbands in pants and underwear
- rubber bands
- rubber cement (used in schools and offices)
- rugs and bath mats
- some articles of clothing
- some medical devices
- surgical gloves
- teething toys
- ventilator tubing
- watch bands
Not all brands contain latex. People with allergies should check the labels, or get in touch with the manufacturer.
Some people who are allergic to latex may also be allergic to specific foods – we call this a cross-reaction. In short, the body’s immune system responds to a food item, producing the same allergic symptoms as would occur with exposure to latex.
Cross-reactions are not the same for all people. While some people react to all foods known to cause a cross-reaction (listed below), others may not. In the same way, if someone is allergic to any of the foods listed below, they might also be allergic to latex:
Some fruits – strawberries, pineapple, pears, nectarines, cherries, passionfruit, papaya, melons, grapes, figs, plums, peaches, kiwi, bananas, and apples.
Vegetables – tomatoes, avocados, celery, carrots, and raw potatoes.
Some nuts – hazelnuts and chestnuts.
Some cereals – rye and wheat.
Anybody planning to undergo a medical procedure should tell their doctor if they are allergic to any of these foods. There is a risk they may have a cross-reaction to latex.
The doctor may order a standard allergy patch test, which can determine whether the patient is sensitive to latex and other similar substances. Great care needs to be taken when doing this test because, in some cases, patients can have a strong reaction.
The doctor may also order a blood test.
There is no current treatment available to desensitize someone that is allergic to latex. In other words, there is no way to prevent an allergic reaction if somebody is allergic to latex and comes into contact with it.
Allergic reactions are treated with antihistamines, adrenaline, and steroids.
The most effective way to treat this type of allergy is to avoid products containing latex. Patients should learn how to identify and stay away from products that might contain latex. There are other substances that can be used to substitute latex, such as polymers (nitrile, SBR, Butyl, Vitron) and synthetic elastic, such as elastane or neoprene.
Unfortunately, makers of latex-containing products are not legally required to mention on their labels which chemicals were used in the manufacturing process. Products made from natural rubber containing other emulsions seem to have a very low potential for causing sensitization.
In some cases, the patients’ sensitivity is so heightened that replacement of latex-containing products with non-latex ones may still result in a reaction. This is because the latex-free ones are manufactured in the same facility as the latex-containing products, and there are traces of latex still about. Those cases are comparable to food allergy sufferers (peanuts, for instance) who are unable to consume other produce manufactured in the same plant.
Some products are labeled “safe latex” by the manufacturer. This indicates lower proportions of natural latex. However, they can still cause latex allergy. Patients should be aware of such labeling.