Latex allergy is a reaction to the proteins found in natural rubber latex, originating from tropical rubber trees.
Those particularly at risk include people who suffer from other types of allergy, or who have a family history of allergies. Those with hay-fever carry a particular high risk. Someone who is allergic to latex is often also allergic to particular food groups which contain proteins which behave in a similar way to the proteins found in natural latex. These include foods such as avocados, bananas, chestnuts, kiwi, melons and passion fruit, but some sufferers find that they are also allergic to more common foods such as tomatoes, grapes and strawberries. If you know that you are allergic to any of these foods you should speak to your doctor about being tested for latex allergy. Individuals who have undergone many surgical procedures or operations, particularly in childhood also carry a high risk. Latex allergy is frequently found in children with spina bifida.
If you work in an industry where disposable latex gloves are worn it is important that you and your co-workers take special precautions. Disposable gloves, often worn by doctors, nurses, dental care workers and those working in the food industry, can be coated in a powder which the latex particles sometimes stick to. When the gloves are removed, these particles are likely to circulate in the air, triggering a reaction in those with latex allergy. Many hospitals and industries have switched to the use of non-latex gloves, and this has reduced the incidence of latex allergy significantly.
A significant number of those with latex allergy develop the condition after years of exposure without having had a reaction. Symptoms can occur either through physical contact or through breathing in latex particles. Usually the first symptoms will appear within minutes. Symptoms, which can become more severe with each exposure to latex include:
- Hives/itchy red rash
- Itchy, stuffy or runny nose
- Itchy, red, watery eyes
- Wheezing, coughing or breathing difficulties, particularly if the latex has been ingested through airborne particles
- Contact with latex can cause anaphylaxis, a rare, life-threatening condition which requires immediate medical attention. Anaphylaxis is less likely if it is the first time the individual has reacted to latex.
In addition to classic natural rubber latex allergy, some people develop skin reactions such as irritant contact dermatitis after contact with latex.
A doctor is likely to ask about your history of contact with latex products and symptoms, as well as asking about whether you or anyone related to you has any other allergies or reactions. Blood tests may confirm the diagnosis. Skin testing is not usually recommended for those with latex allergy because of the possible severity of a reaction.
Management of the condition
There is no known cure for latex allergy. For those who suffer from the condition the only way to avoid a reaction is to avoid natural rubber latex.
Products which may contain natural rubber latex include:
Disposable rubber gloves, various dental products, intravenous tubing and tubing used to supply the airways during surgery, catheters, stethoscopes, condoms, balloons, baby pacifiers, diapers and bottle teats, elastic bands, erasers, rubber balls and bath toys, washing up gloves, sink stoppers, sanitary pads, swimming caps, goggles and diving equipment, supermarket checkout belts, escalator handrails, sports resistance bands and therapy bands, tennis balls, computer mouse mats, keyboards in ATMs, rubber surfaced play areas, mattresses and mattress protectors, cooking utensils, pens and toothbrushes with rubber grips. Some adult underwear, support garments and swimming costumes are reinforced with latex.
Products made of stretchy, thin, natural rubber latex, such as disposable gloves, balloons and condoms are more likely to provoke a reaction in allergy sufferers than those products which are made from harder latex rubber.
As well as avoiding products which contain natural rubber latex, you should inform medical and dental staff of your allergy in advance of any appointment or medical procedure, to ensure that you are only ever treated in areas that are latex-free.
Non-latex condoms can be purchased from most chemist shops and there is also a wide range of non-latex products such as swimming hats, support underwear and protective gloves.
Speak to your doctor about medication which may ease the severity of a reaction. You may be prescribed antihistamines to take in case of contact with latex.
If you have had a reaction to latex and your doctor considers that you are at risk of anaphylaxis, you are likely to be prescribed with epinephrine (adrenaline) in the form of an auto-injector, to be administered at the first signs of anaphylaxis. Symptoms of anaphylaxis may include general distress, difficulty breathing, tightness or a lump in the throat, a fast pulse, a drop in blood pressure, fainting and loss of consciousness. Victims sometimes describe feeling a strong sense of doom. Anaphylaxis must always be treated as a medical emergency and an ambulance should be called as soon as the first dose of epinephrine has been given. You should always carry your auto-injector, with at least two doses, and ensure that the expiry date has not passed.
Just because a product is labelled as being hypoallergenic does not mean that it is necessarily free from natural rubber latex.
Unfortunately, food labelling laws in many parts of the world, do not require manufacturers to state that a product contains natural rubber latex. If in doubt contact the manufacturer.