Latex Allergy

What Is Latex?

The term "latex" refers to the protein in the sap of the Brazilian rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). It also refers to “natural rubber products” made from that sap.

Latex is in many everyday products:

  • balloons
  • rubber bands
  • condoms and diaphragms
  • rubber household gloves
  • rubber balls
  • bandages
  • and more

Contact with these products can cause an allergic reaction. Some people have allergic reactions by breathing in latex fibers in the air. Some people have allergic reactions from skin contact with latex.

Synthetic latex, such as that in latex paint, does not come from the sap of a Brazilian rubber tree. Exposure to synthetic latex does not cause the symptoms of latex allergy.

What Causes an Allergy to Latex?

People may use the term “latex allergy,” but not all reactions to latex are due to having a true allergy to latex.

An allergic reaction is an abnormal response of the immune system to a harmless substance. People with latex allergies have over-sensitive immune systems. Their immune system reacts to latex as if it were a harmful substance.

How Do Doctors Diagnose Latex Allergy?

If you think you may be allergic to latex, see a doctor familiar with the condition. To diagnose latex allergy, the doctor will ask you about your medical history and do a physical exam. If they suspect latex allergy, they may order a blood test. The blood test involves looking for latex antibodies in a blood sample. Your doctor compares your test results with your history and physical exam to make a diagnosis of latex allergy.

What Are the Types of Latex Reactions?

There are three types of reactions to natural rubber latex:

  • IgE-mediated allergic reactions (Type I). These are true allergic reactions involving the immune system and they can be life threatening.
  • Cell-mediated contact dermatitis (Type IV)
  • Irritant dermatitis

IgE-Mediated Latex Allergy (Type I)

An IgE-mediated latex allergy is an allergy to natural rubber latex proteins. The body’s immune system makes antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies. These IgE antibodies react with latex proteins and cause allergy symptoms.

An allergic reaction can occur when latex proteins:

  • Come in contact with the skin
  • Come in contact with a mucous membrane such as the mouth
  • Get into the lungs by breathing them in

Allergic reactions to latex can be severe and life threatening. People with this type of latex allergy should avoid latex.

Allergic reactions to latex can be severe and life-threatening

Cell-Mediated Contact Dermatitis (Type IV)

Dermatitis means skin inflammation. Cell-mediated contact dermatitis (Type IV) is a type of allergy to latex. It is not a life-threatening allergy. This type of reaction is usually due to sensitivity to chemicals used to make latex products, rather than to rubber proteins. There are many chemicals used in the manufacturing process. Any of these chemicals can cause contact dermatitis 24 to 48 hours after exposure. This type of dermatitis can spread to other areas, including the face, if touched. Symptoms usually resolve spontaneously.

Four out of 5 people who develop an IgE-mediated latex allergy will have contact dermatitis first.

Irritant Contact Dermatitis

Irritant contact dermatitis is a common reaction to natural rubber latex, but it is not an allergy. Irritant contact dermatitis is a red, itchy rash that breaks out where latex has touched your skin. It appears 12 to 24 hours after contact.

Irritant contact dermatitis can be the result of:

  • frequent hand washing and incomplete drying
  • use of hand sanitizers
  • friction irritation from glove powder

Anyone who wears powdered latex gloves can develop this condition. In people with allergies, contact dermatitis can be a warning sign that latex allergy may develop.

What Are the Symptoms of Allergic Reactions to Latex?

Common early symptoms include swelling, redness and itching after contact with latex items:

  • Itchy or swollen lips after blowing up a balloon
  • Itchy, red or swollen skin after using a bandage
  • Swelling or itching of the mouth or tongue after a dentist uses latex gloves
  • Itching or swelling after vaginal or rectal exams
  • Itching or swelling after using a condom or diaphragm

People highly allergic to latex may have severe reactions from contact with latex. They may even react to a small amount of latex in the air, such as being in a room near latex balloons or gloves. These more severe reactions can include:

  • Hives
  • Swelling
  • Runny nose or sneezing
  • Inflammation of the eyes
  • Breathing problems including asthma symptoms
  • Anaphylaxis (anna-fih-LACK-sis)

Anaphylaxis can be severe and life threatening. In rare cases, anaphylaxis to latex can cause death.

Do not ignore symptoms that suggest you may be allergic to latex. Continued contact with latex products can lead to more severe reactions. Prolonged exposure to latex can cause people to develop chronic conditions like occupational asthma.

What Should I Do If I Have Latex Allergy?

If you have an IgE-mediated (Type I) latex allergy, work with your doctor to learn how to recognize anaphylaxis and how to treat it.

Prevent Allergic Reactions to Latex:

  • Avoid latex. The only treatment for latex allergy is to prevent any contact with latex products.
  • Get a letter about your latex allergy from your doctor.
  • Ask co-workers to wear only non-latex gloves.
  • Ask doctors, dentists and others health care workers to use latex-free gloves.
  • Check labels to make sure products do not contain latex. Do not assume "hypoallergenic" products are latex-free.

Prepare for Anaphylaxis Due to Latex:

  • Have a written anaphylaxis action plan. Your doctor will give you this step-by-step plan on what to do in an emergency.
  • Learn how to self-inject epinephrine (ep-uh-NEF-rin). It is the medicine of choice to treat an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis. Epinephrine is safe and comes in an easy-to-use device called an auto-injector. It injects a single dose of medicine when you press it against your outer thigh. Your doctor will show you how to use it. Epinephrine can save your life if you have a severe reaction. After using an epinephrine auto-injector, you must immediately call 911 and seek medical care.
  • Always have two epinephrine auto-injectors near you at all times.
  • Teach people who spend time with you how to use the auto-injector device.
  • Wear medical alert identification or jewelry to tell others of latex allergy in an emergency.

Who Is Likely to Have a Latex Allergy?

Less than 1% of people in the US have a latex allergy. Although latex allergy is rare, the condition is more common in certain high-risk groups.

The highest risk is in children with spina bifida. Spina bifida is a condition in which the spine fails to form completely before birth. More than three out of every five children with spina bifida are allergic to latex.

Children who have frequent medical treatments or lengthy surgeries are also at high risk. Many medical supplies use latex – from gloves to tubing to enema tips.

Between 8 to 17 percent of health care workers and others who regularly use latex gloves are allergic to latex. Health care workers and children who have other allergies and get contact dermatitis when they use latex gloves are more likely to develop a latex allergy.

New cases of latex allergy are no longer common. However, in the 1980s and 1990s they were much more frequent. Now, many health care facilities use non-latex gloves and products.

What Are Latex Cross-Reactive Foods?

Some foods have proteins that are like those in the rubber tree sap. Sometimes people with latex allergies experience a reaction to “latex reactive foods.” You may hear this called Latex-Food Syndrome or Latex-Fruit Allergy. Latex reactive foods include nuts and fruit, particularly:

  • avocado
  • banana
  • chestnut
  • kiwi
  • apple
  • carrot
  • celery
  • papaya
  • potatoes
  • tomatoes
  • melons

Ask your doctor for guidance on eating these foods if you have a latex allergy.

Medical Review October 2015.