Am Fam Physician. 1998;57(1):101-102
See related article on latex allergy.
What is latex?
Natural rubber latex comes from a liquid in tropical rubber trees. This liquid is processed to make many rubber products we use at home and at work.
Many household products contain latex, including the following items:
Pacifiers and baby-bottle nipples
Adhesive tape and bandages
Diapers and sanitary pads
In addition, many medical and dental supplies contain latex, including gloves, urinary catheters, dental dams and material used to fill root canals, as well as tourniquets and equipment for resuscitation. Nonlatex substitutes can be found for all of these latex-containing items.
What is latex allergy?
The protein in rubber can cause an allergic reaction in some people. The thin, stretchy rubber in gloves, condoms and balloons is high in this protein. It causes more allergic reactions than products made of hard rubber (like tires). Also, because some rubber gloves are coated with cornstarch powder, the rubber protein particles stick to the cornstarch and fly into the air when the gloves are taken off. In places where gloves are being put on and removed frequently, the air may contain many latex particles.
Latex allergy can be mild, with symptoms such as itchy, red, watery eyes, sneezing or runny nose, coughing, rash or hives. It can also be very severe, with symptoms like chest tightness, shortness of breath and shock. It may even cause death. A latex-sensitive person can have a life-threatening allergic reaction with no previous warning or symptoms.
What are some other reactions to latex?
Some people who work in latex gloves get bumps, sores, cracks or red, raised areas on their hands, over days or weeks. These reactions can be caused by frequent hand washing, antiseptics, constant covering of the hands, or chemicals in gloves. Changing to non-latex gloves helps. It also helps to use glove liners and pay more attention to hand care.
Who is at risk for latex allergy?
Latex products are everywhere. Anyone can become allergic to latex. People with the highest risk are those who have had many operations, especially in childhood. People with spina bifida and urologic abnormalities are also at risk. Health care workers and rubber industry workers are at risk. Health care workers with hay fever seem to have an even higher chance of becoming allergic to latex. A quarter of all health care workers with hay fever show signs of being latex sensitized.
Is there a connection between latex allergy and foods?
Because some proteins in rubber are similar to some food proteins, some foods may cause an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to latex. The most common of these foods are banana, avocado, chestnut, kiwi fruit and tomato. Although many other foods can cause an allergic reaction, avoiding all of them might cause nutrition problems. Therefore, it's recommended that you avoid only the foods that have already given you an allergic reaction.
What should I do if I think I have a latex allergy?
See a doctor, preferably one with experience in treating latex allergy. Your doctor will take a detailed history and may confirm the diagnosis with a blood test. Skin testing is done in some specialized centers. It's not used everywhere, because it can cause severe reactions if it isn't done by an experienced person.
What should I do if I find out I have a latex allergy?
Although there is no treatment for latex allergy, you can reduce your risk of reaction by avoiding direct contact with latex. Take steps to find out which products in your environment contain latex and the substitutes you can use for those products. It's also important to avoid breathing in latex particles from powdered gloves.
If you are a health care worker or a patient, everyone around you should wear powder-free latex gloves or non-latex gloves. If you are a health care worker, compare different kinds of non-latex gloves to find the ones that are best for you.
Always wear a Medic-Alert bracelet or necklace. Talk to your doctor about getting a prescription for an epinephrine self-injection pen, to use in case of a serious reaction. You may wish to carry non-latex gloves with you all the time for use by emergency personnel if you need medical attention.
If you are exposed to latex at your job, tell your employer and co-workers about your latex allergy. Avoid latex gloves completely if you're not at risk for blood and body fluid contamination. Use powder-free gloves if latex gloves are preferable. These measures will help keep others from becoming allergic to latex.
How can I learn more about latex allergy?
Take steps to educate yourself and others by joining the following resource networks and support groups. Work to support workplace policies, industry practices and government legislation that will support the safe use of latex and non-latex alternatives.
Latex Allergy News: The Information Sharing Vehicle of ELASTIC (Education for Latex Allergy Support Team and Information Coalition)
Delaware Valley Latex Allergy Support Network
Telephone: 800-LATEX-NO (800-528-3966)
Spina Bifida Association of America (Can supply updated list of latex products and substitutes)
World Wide Web: http://www.infohiway.com/spinabifida/latex.html
Information about latex allergy: http://pw2.netcom.com/~nam1/latex_allergy.html