- Latex is a milky white sap which drips from the Brazilian rubber tree when the bark is cut. It is a major ingredient in most rubber products.
- Rubber made with latex (called “natural rubber latex,” or NRL) is very popular because of its strength, flexibility, tear resistance and elasticity. Thousands of common household items contain NRL, from shoes to pacifiers to rubber bands. Because it is also an effective barrier against bacteria and viruses, NRL is routinely used in products such as surgical gloves and condoms to stop the spread of infectious disease.
- Depending on how the latex is manufactured, two kinds of NRL can be produced. Crepe rubber is hardened, and is used in products such as tires and rubber balls. Liquid latex, on the other hand, is used to make thin stretchy products such as rubber bands, balloons, and surgical gloves.
- The good news is that the vast majority of latex sensitive people are only allergic to products made from liquid latex. The bad news is that – with infectious disease control so prevalent in health care settings – the use of liquid latex products has skyrocketed during the past ten years. During that same ten years period, latex allergy has become increasingly common, especially among health care workers. Today it is estimated that 5 to 10 percent of all health care workers have been sensitized to latex.
What are the Symptoms of Latex Allergy?
- There are two kinds of latex allergy symptoms: delayed and immediate.
The most common symptom of delayed latex allergy is an itchy, red, mildly swollen rash that appears only on areas of the skin that actually touched the latex. Symptoms typically emerge 10 to 30 hours after contact. In severe cases, blisters may appear. These symptoms are usually caused not by the latex itself, but by certain chemicals added to rubber during processing. (The exact substance that causes the allergic reaction – in this case, the chemical – is called an allergen).
Symptoms occurring within minutes of exposure to the latex are usually immediate reactions. Immediate allergic reactions may involve parts of the body that did not actually touch the NRL. For example, contact with the latex gloves during a dental exam or surgery may cause hives over the entire body. In the most severe cases immediate allergic reactions may involve the airways, lungs, and the heart, leading to life – threatening situations. Symptoms to immediate allergic reactions include:
- Hives, or itchy welts that may appear on any part of the body.
- Hay fever – like symptoms, including nasal stuffiness, sneezing, a runny nose, and itching of the nose, eyes or roof of the mouth.
- Wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.
- Anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction, which includes blocked airways, welling of the throat, and a drop in blood pressure.
- The allergens at fault in immediate allergic reactions are proteins, which are actually part of the latex as it occurs in nature.
Gloves that are labeled “hypo-allergenic” rarely cause delayed allergic reactions. However, “hypo-allergenic” gloves may cause immediate reactions.
Can Latex Allergy be Treated?
The best way to prevent an allergic reaction from latex is to reduce your latex exposure as much as possible.
Medications may help relieve your symptoms, but there are no medicines that will prevent you from having an allergic reaction to latex. Doctors are still experimenting to see whether giving someone medicine before exposure to latex will reduce the severity of the reaction.