Natural rubber latex comes from a liquid in tropical rubber trees. This liquid is processed to make many of the following rubber products used at home and at work:
In addition, many medical and dental supplies contain latex, including gloves, blood pressure cuffs, urinary catheters, dental dams and material used to fill root canals, as well as tourniquets and equipment for resuscitation. Non-latex substitutes can be found for all of these latex-containing items.
The protein in rubber can cause an allergic reaction in some people. This reaction can range from sneezing to anaphylactic shock, which is a serious condition that requires immediate medical attention.
The thin, stretchy latex rubber in gloves, condoms and balloons is high in this protein. It causes more allergic reactions than products made of hard latex rubber (such as tires). Because some latex gloves are coated with cornstarch powder, latex protein particles can stick to the cornstarch and fly into the air when the gloves are taken off. In places where gloves are being put on and removed frequently, the air may contain many latex particles.
Latex allergy can be mild or severe, with symptoms such as:
Some people who wear latex gloves get bumps, sores, cracks or red, raised areas on their hands. These symptoms usually appear 12 to 36 hours after contact with latex. Changing to non-latex gloves, using glove liners, and paying more attention to hand care can help relieve these symptoms.
A person who is highly allergic to latex can also have a life-threatening allergic reaction, called anaphylactic shock. Symptoms include:
Someone having an anaphylactic reaction needs immediate medical attention.
Latex products are everywhere. Anyone can develop a latex allergy. Health care workers and rubber industry workers seem to have the highest risk for latex allergy. Health care workers who have hay fever have an especially high chance of developing a latex allergy, as 25% of all health care workers who have hay fever show signs of being sensitive to latex.
People also at risk are those who have had many operations (especially in childhood), people who have spina bifida (a birth defect that affects the development of the spine) and people who have a food allergy.
Because some rubber proteins are similar to food proteins, some foods may also cause an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to latex. The most common of these foods are banana, avocado, chestnut, kiwi fruit and passion fruit. Although many other foods can cause an allergic reaction, avoiding all of them might cause nutrition problems. Therefore, it's recommended that you avoid only the foods that have already given you an allergic reaction.
See a doctor, preferably one with experience in treating latex allergy. Your doctor will take a detailed history and may confirm the diagnosis with a blood test. Skin testing is usually not used to test for latex allergy, except in some specialized centers. It can cause severe reactions if it isn't done by an experienced person.
Although there is no treatment for latex allergy, you can reduce your risk of reaction by avoiding direct contact with latex. Take steps to find out which products in your environment contain latex. Then, find substitutes you can use for those products. It's also important to avoid breathing in latex particles from powdered gloves or other sources.
If you are a health care worker or a patient, everyone around you should wear powder-free latex gloves or non-latex gloves. If you are a health care worker, compare different kinds of non-latex gloves to find the ones that are best for you.
Always wear or carry a medical alert bracelet, necklace or keychain that warns emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and doctors that you are allergic to latex. Talk to your doctor about getting a prescription for an epinephrine self-injection pen, to use in case of a serious reaction. You may wish to carry non-latex gloves with you all the time for use by emergency personnel if you need medical attention.
If you are exposed to latex at your job, tell your employer and co-workers about your latex allergy. Avoid latex gloves completely if you're not at risk for blood and body fluid contamination. Use powder-free gloves if latex gloves are preferable. These measures will help keep others from becoming allergic to latex.
Take steps to educate yourself and others by joining the resource networks and support groups listed below. Work to support workplace policies, industry practices and government legislation that will support the safe use of latex and non-latex alternatives.