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When Alex was in dental hygiene school, she suddenly developed allergy symptoms—sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, and hives on her hands. She couldn’t think of any new exposures that would cause her symptoms, except for the school environment. After visiting her doctor, she was surprised to learn that the latex gloves she had been wearing in school were causing her symptoms. Alex was diagnosed with a latex allergy.
Natural rubber latex is manufactured from a milky fluid found in the common rubber tree (also called the Para rubber tree or sharinga tree). Many products we use at home, work, and school contain latex, including:
According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, latex allergy occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to proteins found in the natural rubber latex. People with latex allergy are most apt to react to products made of thin, stretchy latex, such as that found in disposable gloves, condoms, and balloons, which are high in these proteins. Products made of hard rubber, such as tires, don’t seem to cause as many allergic reactions. Items made using synthetic latex, such as latex paint, do not trigger allergy.
Powdered latex gloves may worsen allergic reactions because the proteins in latex fasten to the powder. When powdered gloves are removed, latex protein/powder particles get into the air, where they can be inhaled and come into contact with body membranes.
3 types of reactions can occur in people using latex products: irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis, and latex allergy.
An allergic reaction to latex may cause:
Some symptoms may lead to a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Although rare, a life-threatening reaction can be the first sign of latex allergy.
Anyone can develop an allergy to latex. Those with the highest risk include:
If you think you have a latex allergy, see your doctor. A diagnosis can usually be made based on your medical history, a physical examination, and blood tests. Skin testing and glove-use tests should be done only at medical centers where staff are prepared to handle severe reactions.
There is no cure for latex allergy. However, if you have a reaction to latex, your symptoms may be treated with antihistamines, steroids, epinephrine shots, IV fluids, respiratory support, or other measures, depending on the severity of the reaction.
The following tips can help reduce your risk of an allergic reaction to latex if you are allergic to latex:
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology
American Latex Allergy Association
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Common latex products. American Latex Allergy Association website. Available at: http://latexallergyresources.org/common-latex-products. Accessed May 9, 2016.
Contact dermatitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated July 22, 2015. Accessed May 9, 2016.
Latex allergy. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health website. Available at: http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/latexallergy/index.html. Accessed May 9, 2016.
Latex allergy: tips to remember. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology website. Available at: http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/Library/At-a-Glance/Latex-Allergy.aspx. Accessed May 9, 2016.
Pollart SM, Warniment C, et al. Latex allergy. Am Fam Physician. 2009;80(12):1413-1418. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/afp/2009/1215/p1413.html. Accessed May 9, 2016.
Last reviewed May 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 6/10/2014