Latex allergy is a reaction to certain proteins found in natural rubber latex, which is a product made from the sap of Brazilian rubber trees. If a person has a latex allergy, the immune system in their body releases histamine to latex – mistaken as a harmful substance entering the body.
Latex allergy may cause reactions like itchy skin and hives. In severe cases, it may even lead to anaphylaxis – a potentially life-threatening condition that can cause throat swelling and severe difficulty in breathing. An expert can help determine if an individual has a latex allergy or if the person may be at risk of developing one.
Understanding the allergy and knowing common sources of latex can help a person prevent allergic reactions. This blog gives details about latex allergy, types, symptoms, causes, and preventive measures.
What is latex allergy?
As mentioned earlier, latex is a natural rubber obtained from the milky sap of the Brazilian rubber tree. It is used in a wide range of products including medical gloves and IV tubing. However, similar proteins are found in some foods as well.
A person experiences allergy when their immune system adversely reacts to a normally harmless substance as if it were a foreign material, for example, a virus or bacteria. In this process, the immune system in a body releases a host of antibodies and chemicals including histamines, causing an inflammatory immune response.
An allergic reaction to latex may range from mild to severe. In certain extreme cases, it can be life-threatening.
What are the different types of latex allergies?
Latex allergy is of 3 different types, and they are the following:
Irritant contact dermatitis
This is the least-threatening and the most common kind of allergy. It usually occurs when the patient wears rubber gloves and is constantly exposed to the powders present in the gloves. The signs include dry, itchy, and irritated skin, especially hands. This reaction generally begins 12-24 hours after contact.
Allergic contact dermatitis
This is a retarded reaction to additives used in latex processing. It results in similar reactions like irritant contact dermatitis. The reaction is more severe, spreads to more parts of the body, and lasts longer and the symptoms may show up anywhere from 1 to 4 days after the patient comes in contact with latex.
Immediate allergic reaction (latex hypersensitivity).
This is the most serious of the reactions . It may manifest as a nasal allergy with hay fever-like symptoms, conjunctivitis (pinkeye), cramps, hives, and severe itching. It’s quite rare, but symptoms may also include rapid heartbeat, tremors, chest pain, trouble breathing, low blood pressure, or anaphylaxis – a severe allergic reaction that can be life-threatening.
What are the symptoms of a latex allergy?
Allergic reactions to latex often result in the form of a rash at the point of contact, known as contact dermatitis. The signs may include:
- itchy hands
- skin rash that may be warm to the touch
- eczema (denoted as weeping or cracking skin)
Although such reactions are usually temporary, they may begin to show up within minutes of exposure. In some instances, the reaction may also take several hours to develop.
Latex proteins may sometimes become airborne. When this happens, a hypersensitive person may unknowingly inhale them in and develop more severe reactions. These reactions may include:
- swollen and red skin, lips, or tongue
- runny or stuffy nose
- shortness of breath (with or without wheezing)
- abdominal pain
- rapid heartbeat
Anaphylaxis, as a reaction to latex is quite rare, and if it happens, it may be life-threatening. Anaphylactic shock may also cause severe breathing difficulties, decreased blood pressure, or even death if it is untreated.
When to seek a doctor?
Seek immediate medical care if you are experiencing an anaphylactic reaction.
What are the causes of latex allergy?
As mentioned, in a latex allergy, a patient’s immune system identifies latex as a harmful foreign substance and produces certain antibodies to combat it. Therefore, when the body is exposed to latex, the immune system releases histamine and other chemicals into the bloodstream, producing a range of allergy signs and symptoms. When a patient is constantly exposed to latex, there is a higher chance that the patient’s immune system responds strongly. This is called sensitization.
Latex allergy can occur in the following ways:
- Direct contact- The most common cause of this allergy involves touching latex-containing products like latex gloves, condoms, and balloons.
- Inhalation- Latex-made products, especially gloves, release latex particles, which an individual may breathe in when the particles are airborne. The amount of airborne latex from gloves varies depends on the brand and quality of the glove used.
There is also a possibility of developing other skin reactions when using latex. They include:
- Allergic contact dermatitis- this reaction results from the chemical additives used in the manufacturing of the product. The major sign is a skin rash with the formation of blisters 24 to 48 hours after exposure.
- Irritant contact dermatitis- this skin irritation is caused by exposure to the powder present inside them. Signs and symptoms of this include dry, itchy, irritated areas, usually on the hands.
It is important to know that not all latex products are made from natural sources. Products containing man-made (synthetic) latex, such as latex paint, are unlikely to cause any reaction.
What is the treatment for latex allergy?
There’s no cure available for a latex allergy. If a person is allergic to latex, the best way to treat it is to avoid contact with latex. Typically, the treatment will depend on the severity of the reaction. For irritated skin, the following may be used as treatment:
- Corticosteroid ointments
- Soothing lotion like calamine or a 1% hydrocortisone cream
If the person experiences severe reactions, they may need the following at the earliest:
- IV fluids
- Watchful monitoring from medical professionals
What are the preventive methods for latex allergy?
Many commonly used products contain latex, but people can usually find a suitable alternative . Avoiding the following latex containing products can prevent the chances of developing latex allergy:
- Dishwashing gloves
- Rubber toys
- Hot water bottles
- Rubber bands
- Swim goggles
- Racket handles
- Motorcycle and bicycle hand-grips
Many healthcare facilities make use of nonlatex gloves. However, because other medical products may contain latex, patients should inform doctors, nurses, dentists and other healthcare workers about the allergy before any medical exams or procedures.
Other products that contain latex are:
- Grocery store checkout belts
- Restaurants where workers use latex gloves to prepare food
- Car races that give off tyre and rubber particles
- ATM buttons made of rubber
- Gloves that are worn by beauty salon workers
Latex allergy is rarely life-threatening. The best way to prevent the symptoms is to limit the exposure as much as possible. Also, one can avoid symptoms without lifestyle changes and by taking a few extra precautionary measures.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Who is at a greater risk of developing latex allergy?
The following are some of the individuals who are at risk of developing latex allergy:
- Spina Bifida patients
- Patients who undergo multiple surgeries and procedures
- Healthcare professionals
- Rubber industry employees
- Patient with a family history of allergies
How is latex allergy diagnosed?
The doctor will ask for detailed information about the symptoms, medical history, and any underlying health causes. The doctor may also recommend a skin test to diagnose the issue.
What are the food triggers that may cause latex allergy?
Certain people develop latex allergies if they eat, touch, or smell certain foods. This is because some food also has proteins that have a similar structure to those present in latex products. These food items include:
- Fruits such as avocado, banana, grape, melon, and others
- Vegetables and greens including celery and tomatoes
- Dry fruits like chestnut, fig, almonds, hazelnut, and others