A latex allergy is an allergy to rubber or natural latex, often found in balloons, rubber bands, condoms, and in gloves used by health professionals.
Latex allergy symptoms may be immediate or appear later and can range from an itchy rash to a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.
What causes latex allergy?
The exact cause of latex allergy is unknown, but it is thought that repeated exposure to latex and rubber products may induce symptoms.
About 5% to 10% of healthcare workers have some form of allergy to latex.
Who is affected by latex allergy?
Other than healthcare workers, people at increased risk of developing latex allergy include those who have:
- A defect in their bone marrow cells
- A deformed bladder or urinary tract
- A history of multiple operations
- A urinary catheter, which has a rubber tip
- Allergy, asthma or eczema
- Food allergies to bananas, avocados, kiwi fruit or chestnuts
Rubber industry workers and condom users are also at increased risk of developing a latex allergy.
How do people get exposed?
Routes of exposure include:
- Through the skin - as may occur when latex gloves are worn
- Through mucous membranes such as the eyes, mouth, vagina, and rectum
- Through inhalation - rubber gloves contain a powder that can be inhaled
- Through the blood - as may occur when some medical devices containing rubber are used
What happens during a latex reaction?
There are three types of latex reactions:
- Irritant contact dermatitis - The least threatening type of latex reaction, classified as a non-allergenic skin reaction. It usually occurs as a result of repeated exposure to chemicals in latex gloves and results in dryness, itching, burning, scaling and lesions of the skin.
- Allergic contact dermatitis - A delayed reaction to additives used in latex processing, which results in the same type of reactions as irritant contact dermatitis - dryness, itching, burning, scaling and lesions of the skin - but the reaction is more severe, spreads to more parts of the body and lasts longer.
- Immediate allergic reaction (latex hypersensitivity) - The most serious reaction to latex, it can show up as rhinitis with hayfever-like symptoms, conjunctivitis, cramps, hives and severe itching. It is rare, but symptoms may progress to include a rapid heart rate, tremors, chest pain, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, anaphylactic shock, and potentially, death.
If you experience severe symptoms, seek medical advice immediately, or go to the nearest Accident and Emergency department.
How is latex allergy diagnosed?
A latex allergy is diagnosed in people who:
- Have experienced signs or symptoms of allergic reaction (skin rash, hives, watering eyes or irritation, wheezing, itching, difficulty breathing) when exposed to latex or natural rubber products.
- Do not have signs or symptoms of latex allergy but are known to be at risk of latex allergy and have a positive blood or skin test for latex allergy.
Skin testing for latex allergy should only be done with the close supervision of an allergy specialist because of the risk of severe reactions.