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.
What Is 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:
- Disposable gloves
- Rubber bands
- Adhesive tape and bandages
- Baby bottle nipples
- Rubber aprons
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.
Reactions to Latex
3 types of reactions can occur in people using latex products: irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis, and latex allergy.
- Irritant contact dermatitis —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)—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)—A more serious reaction to latex than irritant contact dermatitis or allergic contact dermatitis.
An allergic reaction to latex may cause:
- Red skin
- Runny nose
- Trouble breathing
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Scratchy throat
- Chest tightness
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.
Who Is at Risk for Latex Allergy?
Anyone can develop an allergy to latex. Those with the highest risk include:
- Healthcare workers who frequently use latex gloves and latex-containing medical supplies, especially those healthcare workers who already have hay fever or other allergic conditions
- Workers who occasionally use latex gloves, such as law enforcement personnel, ambulance attendants, firefighters, or housekeepers
- People with spina bifida, probably because of multiple surgeries and other procedures
- Individuals who have had multiple surgical or medical procedures during childhood
- Workers in factories where latex products are manufactured or used
- People with a tendency to have multiple allergic conditions
- People who are allergic to certain foods, such as avocado, bananas, chestnuts, kiwi, papaya, potatoes, and tomatoes
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.
If You Have a Latex Allergy
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:
- Avoid direct contact with latex. Try to find out which products in your environment contain latex and look for substitutes.
- If you need to wear gloves, use non-latex gloves.
- If you must use latex gloves to avoid contamination, use powder-free gloves with reduced protein content.
- Avoid areas where you might inhale powder from latex gloves.
- If you are a healthcare worker or patient, everyone around you should wear non-latex gloves.
- Be sure to tell your employer and all your healthcare providers that you have a latex allergy.
- Always wear a medical alert bracelet. Talk to your doctor about getting an epinephrine self-injection pen, for use in case of a serious reaction.
- Be cautious or avoid eating foods with known cross-reactivity in people with latex allergy, such as kiwi, avocado, bananas, and chestnuts.
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