By David L. Schneider M.D., Allergist & Immunologist
Latex is a natural product which comes from the light milky fluid that is primarily extracted from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). Latex is the major ingredient in most rubber goods and is commonly found in over 40,000 products including such everyday items as band-aids, balloons, condoms, diaphragms, bottle nipples, teething rings, rubber bands and elastic waistbands in pants and underwear.
Latex allergy encompasses a range of allergic reactions to one or more proteins (allergens) found in the sap of rubber trees and are present in natural rubber latex or a latex mixture. A latex mixture results from latex being modified during the manufacturing process. An individual can be allergic to latex, a latex mixture or both. Some synthetic rubber materials may be referred to as "latex" but do not contain the proteins responsible for triggering latex allergy symptoms.
Latex allergies impact up to 12 percent of health care workers and 6 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). Also, 68 percent of children with spina bifida have latex allergy. The allergy can be life-threatening, so patients must take special care to avoid contact with latex, which is found in many everyday item
s, from latex gloves used in health care and food preparation settings, to balloons and exercise balls.
People who are allergic to the proteins in latex may also have to restrict their diet. The same proteins - or ones very similar - are also found in vegetables and fruits like carrots, celery, apples, bananas, strawberries, peaches, avocados, chestnuts and raw potatoes. Thus, people who are allergic to latex may have cross-reactions to these foods.
According to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, "Allergy to latex was first recognized in the late 1970s. Since then, latex allergy has become a major health concern as an increased number of people in the workplace are affected." Health care workers are more prone to suffer from latex allergies because this allergy generally develops after repeated exposure to healthcare products and medical equipment that commonly contain natural rubber latex including surgical gloves, blood pressure cuffs, catheters, IV tubes, and in dental items such as dams and orthodontic rubber bands. While the amount of latex exposure needed to produce an allergic reaction is unknown and most likely varies, increasing exposure to latex proteins results in increased risk of developing allergic symptoms. Latex exposure is not limited to skin contact. Latex proteins often become attached to the lubricant powder that is used in some gloves. When workers change gloves, the powder carrying the proteins becomes airborne and can be inhaled. Inhaled latex can be a serious allergic problem.
Latex causes three types of adverse reactions; two of which are allergy related. The most common reaction to latex is called irritant contact dermatitis or chemical sensitivity dermatitis, the development of dry, itchy, irritated areas on the skin, usually the hands. Symptoms include dry, scaly or cracking skin, redness and mild itching. In our allergy centers, we have occasionally seen skin rashes that are similar to and as severe as those produced by exposure to poison ivy. This condition is not a true allergy and does not stem from a reaction to latex proteins but rather results from a reaction to chemicals that are added to latex during the processing and manufacturing phase. The second reaction that can result from latex exposure is called allergic contact dermatitis or delayed hypersensitivity. Symptoms for allergic contact dermatitis usually present fairly quickly (within six to forty-eight hours). They can be severe, and may include redness, terrible itching, swelling, blisters that ooze a clear fluid and crusting. People who develop this condition often report concerns about it spreading; however, this may not be the case as the time it takes for various locations of the body to react can vary thus giving the appearance of spreading. The third and most dangerous form of latex allergy is called immediate-type hypersensitivity which results in an immediate reaction to latex. This condition stems from being allergic to the actual proteins that come from the rubber tree. Symptoms include hives, nausea, abdominal cramping, facial swelling with itchy, watery eyes and anaphylaxis which can result in dangerously low blood pressure, breathing difficulty, and even death. For some people, even the smallest amount of exposure can trigger allergic reactions. Further compounding the problem is that repeated exposure can make things even worse and result in an allergic reaction. That is why symptoms of a serious latex allergy can develop suddenly even though a person has had no prior adverse reaction to latex in the past.
If you believe you have had problems with skin or respiratory symptoms from being exposed to latex, the most important thing to do is to consult with a board-certified allergist for an evaluation. Diagnosing latex allergies can be complex and seeking help from a specially trained physician who knows what to look for is the first step in finding out exactly what type of latex allergy you may have and how best to treat and manage it.