Latex, also known as rubber or natural latex, is derived from the milky sap of the rubber tree, found in Africa and Southeast Asia.
Latex allergy is an allergic reaction to substances in natural latex. Rubber gloves are the main source of allergic reactions, although latex is also used in other products such as condoms and some medical devices.
What Causes Latex Allergies?
The exact cause of latex allergies is unknown, but it is thought that repeated exposure to latex and rubber products may induce symptoms.
About 5% to 10% of health care workers have some form of allergy to latex.
Who Is Affected By Latex Allergies?
Other than health care workers, people at increased risk for developing latex allergies include those who have:
- A defect in their bone marrow cells
- A deformed bladder or urinary tract
- A history of multiple surgeries
- A urinary catheter, which has a rubber tip
- Allergy, asthma, or eczema
- Food allergies to bananas, avocados, kiwis, or chestnuts
Rubber industry workers and condom users are also at increased risk for developing a latex allergy.
How Do People Get Exposed to Latex?
Routes of latex exposure include:
- Through the skin, as occurs when latex gloves are worn
- Through mucous membranes, such as the eyes, mouth, vagina, and rectum
- Through inhalation; rubber gloves contain a powder that can be inhaled.
- Through the blood, as may occur when some medical devices containing rubber are used
What Happens During a Latex Reaction?
There are three types of latex reactions:
- Irritant contact dermatitis. The least threatening type of latex reaction, classified as a non-allergenic skin reaction. It usually occurs as a result of repeated exposure to chemicals in latex gloves and results in dryness, itching, burning, scaling, and lesions of the skin.
- Allergic contact dermatitis. A delayed reaction to additives used in latex processing, which results in the same type of reactions as irritant contact dermatitis (dryness, itching, burning, scaling, and lesions of the skin). The reaction, though, is more severe, spreads to more parts of the body, and lasts longer.
- Immediate allergic reaction (latex hypersensitivity). The most serious reaction to latex. It can show up as rhinitis with hay fever-like symptoms, conjunctivitis (pink eye), cramps, hives, and severe itching. It is rare, but symptoms may progress to include rapid heartbeat, tremors, chest pain, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, anaphylactic shock, or potentially, death.
What Should I Do During an Allergic Reaction to Latex?
Allergic reactions to latex can range from skin redness and itching to more serious symptoms, such as hives or gastrointestinal problems. True allergic reactions to latex rarely progress to the life-threatening conditions such as low blood pressure, difficulty breathing or rapid heart rate. However, if left untreated, these conditions could potentially result in death.
If you experience severe symptoms, call your doctor or 911 immediately, or go to the nearest emergency room.