The word “latex” refers to natural rubber latex (NRL). It comes from the Hevea brasiliensis tree, which is grown in countries like Malaysia and Thailand.
Latex is harvested by “tapping” or cutting into the tree similar to maple syrup production in the United States. About one-third of freshly harvested latex contains rubber particles; the remaining two-thirds are composed of water, proteins, lipids and other molecules.
Approximately 20,000 different products contain latex used every day by millions of people. Some products are made of thin films of latex rubber, such as gloves, balloons and condoms. Others are made of hard dry latex rubber such as tires, tennis shoes and black rubber stoppers.
Typical symptoms of a latex allergy include hives (urticaria), runny nose (rhinitis) with itchy eyes (rhinoconjunctivitis), coughing and wheezing (asthma), and itching (pruritis). These symptoms often involve the skin, nose, mouth, and lungs much like food or pollen allergies. Unfortunately, these common symptoms can be due to many things and are not diagnostic by themselves. More serious symptoms include difficulty breathing and light-headedness. As the body reacts more strongly to the latex proteins, the heart, lungs and cardiovascular system are affected. Blood pressure may drop and a person may experience anaphylactic shock.
Studies show that the prevalence of type I latex protein allergy in the general population is low – less than 1%. If, however, you are (or have been) regularly exposed to latex, you may be more likely to develop a type I allergy to latex proteins. Common groups with regular exposure include health care workers, and patients with spina bifida, myelomeningocele, or urogenital malformations who have undergone many surgical procedures. A history of other allergies can increase your chances of developing a latex allergy. Latex allergies are reported in 5% to 17% of health care workers, depending on the study, type of test, dates and population. In spina bifida patients, the prevalence of type I latex protein allergy is more than 40%.
If you have a history of symptoms after using latex products at work or home, talk to our health care providers. If you have no recognizable symptoms but are regularly exposed to latex products, you may still want to consider being screened or tested.
A latex allergy is diagnosed by considering a patient’s medical and occupational history, symptoms, and diagnostic test results. There are two ways to test for a latex allergy. In the United States, many physicians use serologic or blood tests. This test measures the level of specific antibodies in blood that will recognize the latex proteins (the first step in this immune response). The presence of antibodies to latex suggests a latex allergy. Although convenient, these tests may not be completely accurate.
Some allergists and dermatologists therefore perform skin prick testing (SPT). SPT is a quick and accurate diagnostic test, depending on the physician’s experience and on the quality of materials used in the test. This test measures the body’s reaction to a small amount of latex protein that is scratched to just below the surface of the skin. A skin reaction (usually a small red bump) t usually indicates a latex allergy.
Many people believe that they are allergic to the powder found on latex gloves. However, the powder on most gloves is a type of cornstarch, and allergies to cornstarch are very rare. Nonetheless, this powder can absorb the allergy-causing proteins from latex products. When powdered latex gloves are donned or removed, the powder is released into the air, carrying latex proteins to the nose, mouth and skin. In fact, studies have shown that the powder with absorbed protein from latex gloves is the most important source of latex protein exposure for health care workers.
If you have been diagnosed with a latex allergy by your physician, it is important for you to decrease your exposure to latex proteins. To decrease your exposure, you must replace latex products (especially thin-film latex) with alternatives made of nonlatex materials. Gloves should be made of nitrile, neoprene, polyvinyl chloride, polyurethane, or other nonNRL-containing synthetic material. Be aware of other sources of latex proteins such as balloons and condoms. The Spina Bifida Association maintains a comprehensive list of products made of alternative nonlatex materials.
It is important to reduce the amount of latex protein in your environment. If you work in health care, try to eliminate the use of powdered latex gloves by other staff. They can still wear powder-free latex or powdered synthetic gloves.
Talk with our health care providers about the use of a Medic-Alert bracelet, emergency epinephrine injections (Epi-Pen), or other needed medications. Notify all health care providers to use latex precautions to prevent the unintended use of latex in an emergency. If these precautions are taken, most individuals can manage a latex allergy with minimal disruptions to their lives.
At this time there is no cure for a latex allergy. Research is underway to develop a method to “desensitize” individuals to latex–as in other types of allergies. However, some individual’s reactions to latex have been life threatening. Therefore, it is safer to assume that you will always have a latex protein allergy.