A latex allergy is a reaction by the immune system to products that contain latex. Latex, which is derived from the rubber tree, is used in many common items, including gloves, condoms, pacifiers, rubber bands and balloons. An allergy to latex is particularly prevalent among healthcare professionals, who use latex gloves to avoid the spread of germs.
Causes of Latex Allergy
As with most types of allergies, a latex allergy is caused by the immune system reacting to latex as a dangerous substance in the body. This overreaction stimulates the body to produce antibodies against the allergen, which triggers the release of histamines and other chemicals. In addition to healthcare professionals, people susceptible to latex allergy include those who have:
- Certain food allergies
- A history of other types of allergies
- Asthma or eczema
- A history of numerous surgical procedures
A latex allergy typically develops over time, through repeated exposure to various products that contain latex. An allergy can arise when latex touches the skin or the mucous membranes, or when medical products that contain latex (catheters, for example) are inserted into the bloodstream. Breathing in the powder often found in latex items can also cause an allergic reaction.
Symptoms of Latex Allergy
Mild cases of latex allergy often cause skin problems that include itchiness, dry patches, scaling, a painful burning sensation or lesions; these are forms of irritant contact dermatitis. Delayed reactions, typically occurring 1 to 2 days after exposure, are also possible. Symptoms are the same as with other types of contact dermatitis, but may be more acute, affect a larger area of the body and take longer to resolve.
The most severe form of latex allergy results in an immediate allergic reaction (immediate hypersensitivity). Symptoms generally include nasal congestion and other responses similar to those of a cold; hives; itchiness; and conjunctivitis. In rare cases, there may be an anaphylactic reaction, with the patient experiencing breathing difficulty, a drop in blood pressure, chest pain, and a quickened pulse and heartbeat. Immediate medical attention is required because anaphylaxis can be life-threatening.
Diagnosis of Latex Allergy
In order to diagnose a latex allergy, the doctor obtains a patient's medical history, and asks questions about the particular symptoms resulting from the exposure to latex. If symptoms are present at the time of the appointment, the doctor performs a physical examination of the affected area. If a latex allergy is suspected, further testing may be required. A skin test may be performed to determine whether there is a reaction, or blood may be drawn for laboratory testing to confirm a suspected diagnosis.
Treatment of Latex Allergy
Treatment of latex allergy begins by avoiding items containing latex, which gives existing symptoms a chance to resolve themselves. Medication selected to treat the condition will depend on the specific symptoms and their severity. Many types of latex allergies are successfully managed with the use of an antihistamine or some form of corticosteroid. Anaphylactic reactions often require immediate epinephrine injections, as well as other medications.
Lifestyle changes can be made to reduce exposure to latex. Replacing products that contain latex with similar items that are latex-free should eliminate symptoms. Patients with latex allergies should be aware that latex gloves and medical devices containing latex are often used in healthcare settings, including in doctors' and dentists' offices, and in hospitals.