Latex allergy is a problem that is increasing in frequency as the use of latex increases in the general population. Today, it is estimated that 3% of individuals have a latex allergy. Reactions to latex can range from skin irritation (dermatitis), hives or welts (urticaria), trouble breathing due to swelling of the throat or chest tightness and wheezing.
Latex Reaction: Contact dermatitis
Contact dermatitis is the development of skin irritation with cracking, peeling, and possible splitting of the skin when wearing latex gloves. The skin improves after time if the person does not use latex gloves. If the individual continues to use the gloves then the irritated skin does not provide a good barrier of protection, and the latex protein exposure is greater. This will lead to the development of a more serious problem. The chemicals used in the processing of latex can also lead to the development of dermatitis. As the chemicals irritate the skin, the individual becomes more vulnerable to developing more serious reactions
Allergic reactions are the progression of problems due to latex. At this point, close contact to latex will not only cause a local reaction where the latex touches the skin, but can cause hives in other areas on the skin that were not touched. This allergic reaction can be systemic, meaning that it can involve the entire body.
Systemic Reactions to Latex
The next level of latex allergy is more serious. The individual with any exposure to latex, whether by airborne latex protein particles or by touching latex, may have serious systemic reactions such as swelling of the lips, face, throat, breathing problems, chest tightness, wheezing and asthma symptoms. These reactions can be life threatening.
Individuals who are allergic to Latex need to reduce their exposure to the substance if any of these symptoms appear. By avoiding all exposure, a very sensitive individual can reduce the severity of their allergy over time. As exposure begins to increase, the reactions will most likely return to the same level of severity.
Managing the Allergy
If an individual is allergic to latex, avoidance is necessary. This includes avoiding toys, balloons, household objects, hospital equipment, etc. If the individual is to undergo a medical procedure no latex should not be used at all. Telling everyone that you are latex allergic is important. This causes an increase in the cost and effort needed to take care of the allergic individual. Seeing an allergist is important to confirm whether an individual is truly latex allergic.
Health care workers, people that have undergone numerous surgeries, and allergic people in general are at higher risk of developing a latex allergy. In fact, approximately 13% of health care workers have a latex allergy.
It’s also important to note that individuals with a latex allergy have an increased chance of developing an allergy to avocados, kiwi, and hazelnuts.
At this time, the best way to detect the allergy is by ordering a blood test called Immunoglobulin E RAST for latex. If it is positive, it is very important to avoid all exposure as contact with latex can be life threatening.
How Did Latex Allergies Develop Over Time?
The majority of latex comes from the country of Malaysia. Latex comes from the Hevea Brazilinsis tree. The tree is cut and sap is collected like maple syrup into a bucket. The latex is taken to the factory and processed where various chemicals are added. Latex allergy was first seen in children with spina bifida.
Another way that this allergy formed is due to frequent catheterization of the bladder. This can lead to sensitization to latex and cause some patients to develop anaphylaxis, or severe reactions. Another group of patients that have reported severe allergic reactions were identified to have used latex tipped enemas. The catheters and enema tips were changed to silicone to avoid sensitization and to decrease the chance of causing an allergic reaction.
As the HIV/AIDS epidemic developed, latex use increased rapidly and the preparation time for latex products was reduced. This led to an increase in latex protein present in latex products. This allowed individuals to have more exposure to latex protein and vulnerable individuals began to have serious reactions.
Treatment & Management
Because latex is found in so many places and in so many products, a latex allergic patient should take a daily antihistamine, which may help reduce the intensity of a reaction.
It is important to carry an antihistamine with you like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), possibly prednisone and if a systemic reaction (life threatening reaction) is possible, then also Epinephrine.
An allergist will set up an emergency plan that will help address any allergic reactions to latex.