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 in the tropical rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. 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 (eg, tires) don’t seem to cause as many allergic reactions. Items made using synthetic latex (eg, latex paint) do not trigger allergy.
Powdered latex gloves may exacerbate 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.
Three types of reactions can occur in people using latex products: irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis, and latex allergy.
Irritant contact dermatitis is the development of dry, itchy, irritated areas on the skin, usually the hands. The irritation is caused by using gloves, and possibly by contact with other products and chemicals. Irritant contact dermatitis is not a true allergy to latex. It comes on gradually over the course of several days..
Allergic contact dermatitis (also known as delayed hypersensitivity or chemical sensitivity dermatitis) is a rash similar to poison ivy, which results from exposure to chemicals added to latex during harvesting, processing, or manufacturing. The rash usually begins 12-48 hours after contact.
Latex allergy (also known as immediate hypersensitivity) is a more serious reaction to latex than irritant contact dermatitis or allergic contact dermatitis.
Signs of an allergic reactions can include the following symptoms:
Thes symptoms can be a sign of 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, intravenous 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
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
Contact dermatitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated June 13, 2012. Accessed July 11, 2012.
Latex allergy. Am Fam Physician. 2009;80(12):1419-1420. American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/afp/2009/1215/p1419.html.
Latex allergy. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health website. Available at: http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/latexallergy/index.html. Accessed July 11, 2012.
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 July 11, 2012.
Latex (natural rubber) allergy in spina bifida. Spina Bifida Association of America website. Available at: http://www.spinabifidaassociation.org/site/c.liKWL7PLLrF/b.2700271/k.1779/Latex_Natural_Rubber_Allergy_in_Spina_Bifida.htm. Accessed July 11, 2012.
Pollart S, Warniment C, et al. Latex allergy. Amer Fam Physician. 2009;80(12):1413-1418.
Last reviewed July 2012 by Brian Randall, MD
Last Updated: 7/11/2012