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Latex Allergy

Latex allergy facts

  • Latex allergies peaked in the 1990s and have dramatically decreased since the widespread use of latex-free products.
  • Fifty percent of latex-allergic individuals have another type of allergy, such as a food allergy.
  • Latex allergy can lead to a serious allergic reaction but can also cause a localized skin reaction.
  • Those at higher risk for latex allergy include health-care professionals and patients with chronic medical problems and a history of multiple surgeries, particularly patients with spina bifida.

What is latex and where is it found?

Latex is a natural product which comes from the light milky fluid extracted from the rubber tree. This milky fluid is often modified during the manufacturing process to form a latex mixture. A person can be allergic to the latex or the mixture or both. Latex-containing products are many and varied (see the list below). Common household latex products include balloons and condoms. Common medical latex products include stoppers on syringes, blood pressure cuffs, oxygen tubing, and catheters. The powder of surgical gloves was a significant problem before appropriate substitutes were developed, as the powder could be inhaled and could lead to respiratory difficulties.

What caused the rise in latex allergies?

In the 1980s, with the emergence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), it became increasingly important to take precautions that would prevent the spread of infectious diseases. This effort resulted in the application of universal precautions for protecting a person from infectious material, such as blood and other bodily fluids, using protective barriers. The most commonly used barrier was the latex glove. The prevalence of latex allergy peaked at 3%-9.5% in the 1990s but now has fallen to less than 1% in countries where active latex avoidance measures are practiced.

Who is at risk for developing a latex allergy?

Repeated exposure to latex is necessary for an allergy to develop. Health-care workers exposed to latex products (such as gloves and catheters), people who require frequent surgery or catheter use, and workers in the manufacturing or distribution of latex products are at the highest risk for latex allergy. For unknown reasons, people who have surgeries of the spine or urinary tract have a much higher risk of latex allergy.

There is also an association of unique food allergy among people allergic to latex, known as the fruit latex syndrome. People allergic to latex are frequently allergic to various fruits, particularly avocado, banana, chestnut, and kiwi.

What are the symptoms and signs of the two forms of latex allergy?

Allergy to latex comes in two different forms. One form is called a "delayed hypersensitivity," which is usually seen as an itchy skin rash at the site where the latex product contacts the skin. This rash is similar to poison ivy and is generally self-limited. The other form is an immediate hypersensitivity reaction (also known as an IgE-mediated reaction) to latex. This type of reaction can lead to anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can involve the skin, respiratory system, gastrointestinal system, and cardiovascular system.

How do health-care professionals assess and diagnose a latex allergy?

Clinical history is the most important aspect of diagnosing any type of latex allergy. A patch test to latex could potentially be performed to diagnose a delayed hypersensitivity response to latex. For an immediate hypersensitivity response to latex, a blood test is the only approved test presently available. In the United States, there is currently no approved skin testing for an immediate hypersensitivity to latex.


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What is the treatment for a latex allergy?

Strict avoidance of latex is the treatment for latex allergy. Latex-free synthetic rubber, such as neoprene, nitrile, SBR, Butyl, and Vitron are polymers available as alternatives to natural rubber. Certain individuals at risk for anaphylaxis may benefit from having an epinephrine autoinjector on hand at all times.

No current treatment is available to desensitize a person who is allergic to latex. For a delayed hypersensitivity reaction to latex, topical or oral steroids may be used to treat the rash. An anaphylactic reaction to latex should be treated promptly with injectable epinephrine, and mild reactions confined to the skin may be treated with oral antihistamines.

Latex-containing products (partial list)

  • Band-Aids
  • Rubber bands
  • Erasers
  • Some shoes and articles of clothing
  • Balloons
  • Surgical gloves
  • Catheters
  • Condoms
  • Some items of sporting equipment
  • Blood pressure cuffs
  • Some watch bands
  • Helmets
  • Toothbrush massagers
  • Bowling balls
  • Ventilator tubing.

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