by Geraldine Freeman, M.D.
Latex rubber is a natural variety of rubber made from the milky sap of the rubber tree. Rubber gloves, such as surgical gloves, and many other medical, industrial, and household products are made from latex rubber. Since the 1980’s, allergy to latex has been recognized as a serious medical problem for some 3people. Contact with latex or inhaling latex particles can cause hives or swelling, respiratory symptoms similar to asthma or hay fever, or even anaphylactic (allergic) shock in sensitive people.
Latex allergy is most often seen in health care workers, people who wear latex gloves in their work, and people who work in factories where latex products are manufactured. However, it is not limited to those. People with respiratory allergies, asthma or hay fever, are more likely to develop latex allergy, but it can happen to anyone.
The allergic reaction is usually triggered by contact – wearing latex gloves, or contact with latex gloves or other medical devices while undergoing surgery or dental work; latex condoms, diaphragms, or baby bottle nipples, among others. Latex gloves are dusted with a fine powder (usually corn starch) to make them easier to slip on. The powder itself is not likely to cause allergies, but in some settings enough of the powder particles can become suspended in the air, like dust, to cause a respiratory or systemic (i.e. serious) reaction to the small amount of latex clinging to the particles.
Avoiding latex is difficult, and not always possible. Many common products, like balloons, rubber bands, and household gloves, may contain latex. (Latex paint, oddly enough, does not – it is made from a synthetic material). Labels do not always warn you of latex in a product, although allergists and the FDA are working to improve labeling. Vinyl, neoprene, and other materials are available as substitutes for some latex products. Dentists and medical workers can use these substitutes if they are warned that a patient is allergic. Some hospitals now have surgical suites where no latex products are used.
At present, testing for latex allergy is done by blood test, because of the risk that a skin test could trigger an allergic attack. Safer skin tests will probably be available in the future. There is no effective treatment other than avoiding exposure. People found to be allergic to latex may need to wear medical identification, and possibly carry a kit for epinephrine injection in case of accidental exposure. Your allergist can tell you more about latex allergy.
Posted in: Latex Allergy