By Chris Woolston, M.S.
Latex is one more example of a natural product with certain useful properties that are superior to anything manmade. This liquid, found in tropical rubber trees, is perfect for making products that need to be constructed out of a material that's strong, stretchy, thin and lightweight. That's why you can find it in products as diverse as pacifiers, balloons, disposable gloves, and condoms.
Just as most people can eat peanuts or shellfish without worrying, most people can safely use latex. But for those who have a latex allergy, this common product can be a serious concern. According to the American Latex Allergy Association, a little less than 1 percent of people in the general population have a latex allergy. That adds up to about 3 million people nationwide.
What is a latex allergy?
Like many other plant substances, latex contains proteins that can activate the human immune system. If you have an allergy to latex, your immune system overreacts when it senses these proteins. The parts of your body that usually fight germs start attacking the latex instead, setting off an allergic reaction.
Your allergy might flare up if you touch something made out of latex, or if you inhale small latex particles, such as those that adhere to the cornstarch powder coating on a disposable glove. These powder and latex particles fly into the air when gloves are removed. In settings where latex gloves are used regularly, the air may be filled with latex particles. Some people are so allergic that simply being near a latex balloon can cause a reaction, which is why many hospitals now ban latex balloons in patients' rooms. (Like gloves, latex balloons are often packed in powder that can spread tiny particles of latex through the air.)
What are the symptoms of a latex allergy?
If your allergy is mild, you may notice an itchy, red rash (sometimes with oozing blisters) on your skin 12 to 36 hours after touching latex. This reaction is called allergic contact dermatitis and can feel like poison ivy.
People with more severe allergies can develop reactions on parts of the body that never came in direct contact with latex. Hives or rashes may appear on any part of the skin. Sneezing and itchy, watery eyes -- similar to hay fever symptoms -- are also common. Reactions like these usually appear quickly after exposure in someone who is allergic to latex.
Swelling of the lips and tongue and difficulty breathing may be signs of anaphylaxis, the most serious allergic reaction that can be life-threatening. While such a severe reaction to latex is rare, there is no way to know who is susceptible, or when an attack might occur. If you see someone experiencing signs of anaphylaxis, call 911.
Who is at risk?
Just as the body becomes more sensitive to bee venom after multiple stings, sensitivity to latex can build with repeated exposures. For this reason, rubber industry workers and health-care professionals who frequently use latex gloves or other medical products containing latex are especially vulnerable. As reported by the American Latex Allergy Association, between 8 and 17 percent of all health-care workers are sensitive to latex. For the same reason, allergies to latex are common among people who have had multiple surgeries. People who have hay fever or food allergies are also more likely to be allergic to latex.
How can I protect myself?
The best way to manage a latex allergy is to avoid coming in contact with latex products. (Unlike allergies to ragweed or pet dander, latex allergies can't be cured with a series of shots.) Latex products are practically everywhere, so you'll have to use caution throughout your day.
Here are some places where latex lurks:
Check the American Latex Allergy Association's Web site for a list of alternative products: http://www.latexallergyresources.org/topics/consumerProducts.cfm
If latex gloves irritate your skin, you might be able to reduce symptoms by taking these steps:
What can my doctor do to help?
Your doctor may not be able to cure your allergies, but he or she can help you manage the disease. If you have a severe allergy, your doctor may prescribe an epinephrine self-injection pen (such as EpiPen) for you to keep on hand for severe reactions. Keep in mind that if you have a severe reaction and use epinephrine, it is not a substitute for immediate medical care. You should still call 911. Ask your doctor if it's a good idea for you to also have a medical alert bracelet. That way, if you're ever hurt and unable to speak, an alert bracelet would let paramedics know not to touch you while wearing latex gloves.
American Latex Allergy Association
American Academy of Family Physicians. Latex Allergy http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/allergies/basics/254.html
American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. Tips to Remember: Latex Allergy. http://www.aaaai.org/patients/publicedmat/tips/latexallergy.stm
National Institute for Occupational Health. Latex Allergy A Prevention Guide. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/98-113.html.
National Institute for Occupational Health. Preventing Allergic Reactions to Natural Rubber Latex in the Workplace. http://www.cdc.gov/Niosh/latexalt.html
Last Updated: March 11, 2013
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