Latex is one of the most commonly used materials in the entire world, but many people exhibit signs of a latex allergy. It is easy to underestimate the amount of everyday products that contain latex. Let’s talk more about having reactions and allergies to latex and the treatments that are available for this condition.
What is latex?
Latex, also known as natural rubber latex, comes from the sap of certain tropical trees. This sap is collected and processed to create an elastic rubber that is used to manufacture many different products. The resulting material is a polymer that still contains a small amount of the proteins, fatty acids, and resins that were found in the original tree sap.
Products and items that are commonly made of latex include:
- Medical gloves
- Household gloves
- Dental dams
- Electrode pads
- Blood pressure cuffs
- Intravenous devices
- Surgical masks
- Baby bottle nipples
- Rubber toys
- Swimming caps
- Swimming goggles
- Rubber boots
- Hot water bottles
- Rubber bands
- Certain types of carpet
What is a latex allergy? And how many different types of latex allergies exist?
Human beings can be allergic to nearly every substance on Earth, and latex is no exception. A latex allergy can result in different signs and symptoms, and in some cases, it can be difficult to correlate these reactions with a latex allergy.
Some people develop allergic reactions after inhaling latex fibers in the air, while others exhibit symptoms after the material comes into contact with their skin. Synthetic latex, such as the one contained in latex paint, won’t cause a latex allergy.
Allergies occur when your body has an abnormal reaction to a harmless substance (allergen), because your immune system perceives it as a threat. When it comes to a latex allergy, the reaction is usually caused by the proteins found in latex. This type of latex allergy is called IgE-mediated latex allergy (type I). This latex allergy can be severe and life-threatening, and people who suffer from it should avoid latex entirely.
Another type of allergy, called cell-mediated contact dermatitis (type IV) can also occur as a reaction to latex. This type of allergy is typically milder than a type I latex allergy, and it is caused by hypersensitivity to some of the chemicals that are added to latex during its manufacturing process. It is not uncommon for people who have a type I latex allergy to have previously experienced a type IV allergy.
Skin contact with latex can also cause a condition called irritant contact dermatitis; however, this isn’t a true allergy. This reaction to latex doesn’t involve your immune system.
People who are frequently exposed to latex have a higher risk of developing a latex allergy. This includes medical professionals who regularly wear latex gloves or who come into contact with other produces made of latex. Other high-risk groups include chronic patients who require frequent medical treatments or surgical procedures, and children with spina bifida.
Industrial rubber workers, workers in the food industry, construction workers, gardeners, and individuals with a history of other allergies also have a higher risk of developing this allergy.
Interestingly, people with latex allergies can also develop reactions to certain foods, or latex-fruit syndrome. These foods are called “latex reactive foods”, and they mostly include fruits and nuts, such as:
What are the most common signs of a latex allergy?
It is possible for different people to experience different reactions to a latex allergy. Symptoms can worsen after repeated exposure to latex.
Mild signs of a latex allergy can include:
- Skin rash
- Skin redness
More severe reactions caused by a latex allergy include:
- Runny nose
- Scratchy, swollen throat
- Watery eyes
- Dyspnea or difficulty breathing
- Anaphylactic shock
How is a latex allergy diagnosed?
If you notice that you or your child develop symptoms after being in contact with latex – for example, after playing with balloons or getting a dental exam -, it is very important to see a doctor. If necessary, you will be referred to an allergist or immunologist.
Your doctor could perform skin or blood tests to determine whether you have a latex allergy. They will probably also test you for other types of allergies.
The most effective treatments for a latex allergy
The treatment for your latex allergy will largely depend on the severity of your symptoms. The best remedy for a latex allergy is to avoid latex. In order to do so, you need to learn how to identify latex products and risky situations. For example, avoid contact with latex balloons or ask food workers to use non-latex gloves while preparing your food.
You should let your employer, healthcare provider, or school about your allergy. That way, they can help you take precautions and avoid latex. If you ever require a surgical procedure, tell the surgical team about your allergy beforehand so that they can create a latex-free environment.
Dentists and doctors can switch to latex-free gloves and supplies to protect patients with latex allergies. Many hospitals and clinics have permanently switched to non-latex gloves. If you or your sexual partner are allergic to latex, you will need to use non-latex condoms during intercourse.
If you have a mild latex allergy, your treatment could include taking antihistamine medications. If you have a more severe allergy, your doctor could recommend carrying auto-injectable epinephrine or adrenaline at all times. This medication can be lifesaving if you develop anaphylaxis.
Latex allergies can be severe, and several precautions need to be taken in order to stay safe. Carrying epinephrine and allergy medications with you at all times can help prevent or treat serious complications. Although latex allergies can’t be cured, treatment and prevention can help you lead a normal, healthy life despite this condition.