What Is a Latex Allergy?
A latex allergy is when your body’s immune system overreacts to certain kinds of proteins found in natural rubber latex that’s used to make things like rubber gloves, condoms, and some medical devices.
Doctors don’t know what causes it. Coming in contact with latex and rubber products over and over may be part of the reason it happens.
Who Is Likely to Develop a Latex Allergy?
About 5% to 10% of health care workers have some form of latex allergy.
Other people who are more likely than most people to get it include those who have:
- A defect in their bone marrow cells
- A deformed bladder or urinary tract
- Had more than one operation
- A urinary catheter, which has a rubber tip
- Allergy, asthma, or eczema
- Spina bifida
- Food allergies to apples, bananas, carrots, celery, chestnuts, kiwi, melons, papayas, raw potatoes, avocadoes, pineapple, and tomatoes
Rubber industry workers and people who use condoms are also more likely than others to get a latex allergy.
How Can You Be Exposed to Latex?
You can get exposed to latex:
- Through the skin, such as when you wear latex gloves
- Through mucous membranes, such as the eyes, mouth, vagina, and rectum
- Through inhalation. Rubber gloves can contain cornstarch powder, which absorbs the latex and can become airborne when the gloves are removed.
- Through the blood. This can happen when some medical devices containing rubber are used.
Types of Latex Allergies
There are three types of latex reactions:
1. Irritant contact dermatitis. This is the least-threatening type, and it’s not an allergic skin reaction. It usually happens due to repeated exposure to chemicals in latex gloves and leads to dryness, itching, burning, scaling, and skin problems. This generally starts 12-24 hours after contact.
2. Allergic contact dermatitis. This is a delayed reaction to additives used in latex processing. It results in the same type of reactions as irritant contact dermatitis. But the reaction is more severe, spreads to more parts of the body, and lasts longer. Symptoms can start anywhere from 1 to 4 days after you've come in contact with latex.
3. Immediate allergic reaction (latex hypersensitivity). This one is the most serious. It can show up as a nasal allergy with hay fever-like symptoms, conjunctivitis (pinkeye), cramps, hives, and severe itching. It’s 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.
If you have severe symptoms, call your doctor or 911 immediately, or go to the nearest emergency room.
Latex Allergy Diagnosis
Doctors diagnose a latex allergy in people who:
- Have had symptoms of an allergic reaction -- like a skin rash, hives, eye tearing or irritation, wheezing, itching, or trouble breathing -- when exposed to latex or a natural rubber product
- Are known to be at risk for a latex allergy and blood or skin tests show that they have it, even if they haven’t had symptoms.
If you need a skin test to check on a latex allergy, an allergy specialist must supervise it, in case you have a severe reaction.
Latex Allergy Treatment
There’s no cure for a latex allergy. If you’re allergic to latex, the best course of action is to avoid contact with it. If you do have a reaction, the treatment will depend on how serious it is. For irritated skin, these may be enough:
If your reaction is severe, you may need these right away:
- IV fluids
- Watchful care from medical professionals
Latex Allergy Home Triggers
An allergy to latex can become worse the more you come in contact with it. If you know you have this condition, be aware of products that may have the potential to cause a reaction. Ask your doctor if you need to avoid them.
Many items have latex in them. Read product labels carefully. You may need to ask product makers to be sure.
Home goods that are made with latex include:
- Rubber sink stoppers and sink mats
- Gloves for dishwashing and household cleaning
- Rubber or rubber-grip utensils
- Rubber electrical cords or water hoses
- Bath mats and floor rugs that have rubber backing
- Toothbrushes with rubber grips or handles
- Rubber tub toys
- Sanitary napkins (that contain rubber)
- Condoms and diaphragms
- Diapers that contain rubber
- Adult undergarments that contain rubber
- Waterproof bed pads containing rubber
- Undergarments, socks, and other clothing with elastic bands that contain rubber
- Adhesives such as glue, paste, art supplies, glue pens
- Older Barbie dolls and other dolls that are made of rubber
- Rubber bands, mouse and keyboard cords, desktop and chair pads, rubber stamps
- Mouse and wrist pads containing rubber
- Keyboards and calculators with rubber keys or switches
- Pens with comfort grip or any rubber coating
- Remote controllers for TVs or recording devices with rubber grips or keys
- Camera, telescope, or binocular eyepieces
- Bathing caps and elastic in bathing suits
- Some rain boots and raincoats
Outside the home, latex is also in many items, such as:
- Grocery store checkout belts
- Restaurants where workers use latex gloves to prepare food
- Some balloons
- Car races that give off tire and rubber particles
- ATM machine buttons made of rubber
- Gloves worn by beauty salon workers
Medical products containing latex include:
- Blood pressure pads
- EKG pads
- IV tubing
- Some adhesive bandages
- Dental devices
How Can I Safely Visit a Doctor or Dentist?
Tell them about your latex allergy at least 24 hours before your appointment. The hospital or doctor's office should have a plan in place so they can use products like nonlatex gloves to treat you.
Ask for the first appointment in the morning. Even if your doctor or dentist uses latex-free gloves for you, there can be latex particles in the air from gloves used with other patients. You're more likely to avoid these particles by getting there early.
If you have to stay in the hospital, you'll usually be given your own room, free of products that might give you a reaction.
Between 30% and 50% of people who have a latex allergy also have reactions to eating, touching, or even smelling certain foods. This happens because some fruits and vegetables have proteins that are structured a lot like the ones that cause the reaction to latex. It’s called a cross-reaction.
These foods include:
Almonds, peppermint, and mustard can also cause cross-reactions.
If you’re allergic to any of these foods, you may also have a latex allergy, even if you don’t know it. Let your doctor and dentist know so they can keep from exposing you.