A latex allergy can be very serious, with severe symptoms, and in some cases, the reaction is so bad it can be fatal. That’s why it’s important to recognize if you have a latex allergy and what to do to avoid contact with latex. Latex allergy causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention are all important information that can reduce discomfort or even save a life.
Learning about latex, resources of latex, and how it causes an allergic reaction is the first step to avoiding a significant reduction in quality of life based on allergies. While direct contact with latex products seems like the major source, it might be surprising to learn about the various products and even foods that can cause a reaction to latex.
Causes and sources of latex allergy
Latex is a product of the rubber tree, made from the sap. This is actually called natural rubber latex. The allergy that causes a reaction and symptoms is to a particular protein contained in the latex, which causes the body to respond as if a foreign object or something harmful threatens to attack. With this, the body goes into defensive mode and releases antibodies, which produce histamine. Histamine increases the production of fluids, including mucus, and causes inflammation and irritation.
In the average person, none of this happens. The allergic reaction is a miscommunication in the body, causing the symptoms. While some sources of latex are expected, and alternatives without latex are available so it’s easier to avoid latex, other contact with latex may come as a surprise. Some of the most common places in which latex is found include:
- Medical and dental supplies, such as:
- Disposable gloves
- Tubing used in airways and intravenously, as well as in catheters
- Would dressings and bandages
- Consumer purchased products, like:
- Handbags and purses or wallets
- Toys, bottles, and pacifiers
- Tires and tools
- Athletic shoes
- Foods (with the same protein contained in latex)
- Carrots and celery
- Raw potatoes
- Melons and kiwi
In most cases, a latex allergy requires direct contact with natural rubber latex to cause a notable problem, although with food, it could be contact with skin or ingestion. However, in some cases, inhalation of latex particles can cause a reaction, such as with some latex gloves, which produce a certain amount of airborne latex.
Symptoms of a latex allergy
The symptoms experienced with a latex allergy range from mild to life threatening. There are three types of latex allergies. The most common is irritant contact dermatitis.
Typically symptoms are minor and include:
- Dry and itchy skin
- Burning and other skin irritation
- Scaling lesions, especially on the hands
Allergic contact dermatitis is the second type of latex allergy and is caused by some of the additives and chemicals used in the processing of latex into other products. Some of the symptoms are similar to irritant contact dermatitis but could be more severe.
Expect issues such as:
- Scaling and burning skin
- Clear, obvious rashes and hives
- Blistering and oozing of the skin
The third type of latex allergy, and potentially the most dangerous, is latex hypersensitivity. This is a rare condition and cause severe, immediate reaction, sometimes including potential death. Think about it like a bee sting and the potential for allergies and reactions.
Milder symptoms of this condition are:
- Rhinitis (inflammation and irritation of the nose and nasal passages), with running, sneezing, and congestion
- Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the white of the eyes), or at least watery or irritated eyes
- Severe itching and irritation or even cramps
- Stomach or gastrointestinal issues
Progressive symptoms can be more severe, including:
- Tachycardia (rapid heart rate)
- Uncontrolled tremors or muscle spasms
- Chest pain and tightness, with shortness of breath
- Difficulty breathing (in severe cases, anaphylaxis) or wheezing
- Low blood pressure, characterized by dizziness and feeling faint
These reactions don’t require contact with latex in serious cases, which means that airborne particles can cause these severe symptoms.
Treatment and prevention of latex allergies
Knowing the highest risk factors for having or developing a latex allergy can help with management and prevention of an allergic reaction. Those who are at a higher risk often hold professions with great exposure to latex, but not all.
People at the greatest risk are:
- Those who have multiple surgeries, typically ten or more (think children with spina bifida or other birth defect)
- People with other regular allergies, like hay fever and food allergies
- Doctors, nurses, caregivers, and others in the healthcare industry often exposed to latex gloves, bandages, and other equipment
- Those with a high exposure to natural rubber latex, like factory workers in the rubber industry
Avoiding latex is the best treatment for an allergy to the material. For example, switching to nitrile and other synthetic glove types in healthcare and in production can lead to a much more comfortable and healthy existence. Unfortunately, there is no preventative measure that allows for “conditioning”, which means that allergy shots (which expose patients to miniscule amounts of the allergen at the core of the reaction until they are desensitized) isn’t an option.
Depending on the severity of the reaction, there are three basic treatments for a latex allergy
- Antihistamines – Histamine is the substance produced in an allergic reaction that causes most of the symptoms of that reaction. Antihistamines are used to stop the production of histamine in the body so that symptoms dissipate over the course of a few minutes to a few hours. These may need to be taken on a regular basis with prolonged exposure, or may only be necessary in instances of unusual contact to latex, such as ingesting a meal with a related food that wasn’t listed in the ingredients.
- Steroids – Inhaled corticosteroids (nasal sprays) have proven to be extremely effective in treating all sorts of allergic reactions, including latex allergies. These steroids significantly reduce inflammation, the biggest reaction and most bothersome symptom of an allergy, including latex. As swelling goes down, so do other irritations, including rashes and pain. Corticosteroids may also be prescribed by a doctor in oral form.
- Adrenaline – When a latex allergy is so severe it causes the patient to stop breathing or the heart to stop beating (known as anaphylaxis), adrenaline in the form of epinephrine may be administered on an emergency basis. Many people with life threatening allergies were a medical alert bracelet so others will know, and they carry an emergency syringe of epinephrine with them for such instances.
While all allergies are important to understand, the potential for fatality with a latex allergy makes it crucial to know more about the possible reactions. Being able to avoid latex is a great start in preventing serious complications, and having an emergency plan in case of a problem is even better.
A latex allergy doesn’t necessarily show up immediately, like a food or pollen allergy, and can actually be created by prolonged and continuous exposure to latex. Take care to watch for triggers and symptoms so you’ll know if you start to develop an allergy and can instantly start to manage it.