Latex Allergy - What You Need to Know to Stay Safe

Health Professional

One of the most potent and dangerous types of allergies is the latex allergy. People tend to not just be "a little allergic" to latex. In fact, latex allergy is one of the more common causes of anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening allergic shock event.

What Is Latex & Why Does It Trigger Allergies?

Latex is a milky substance, a sort of sap, produced by rubber trees. It is used in the manufacture of medical gloves, balloons, condoms, rubber bands, some toys and other rubber-based products.

In sensitive people, latex is interpreted by the body as a threat and sets of an allergic reaction, which can be quite severe, especially with multiple exposures.

Who's at Risk?

Not every person who has allergies will be sensitive to latex; in fact, most aren't. Repeated exposure to latex seems to be a big risk factor, which is why so many latex allergy sufferers are healthcare professionals who often don "rubber" gloves, and also people who have had many surgeries.

About half of people who have a latex allergy also have a history of some other type of allergy. Also, there can be a cross-sensitivity with certain food allergens. For example, if you are allergic to fruits and vegetables, such as bananas, chestnuts, kiwi, avocado and tomato, you might also be allergic to latex.

How Do You Know if You Are Allergic to Latex?

With latex allergy being so dangerous, it's important to identify if it affects you as soon as possible, so that you can avoid exposure and/or be prepared for a life-threatening event.

There are 2 different types of allergic reaction to latex products you should be aware of.

Contact dermatitis, usually in relation to added chemicals in the rubber. Though irritating, this type of allergic reaction is rarely severe. It usually occurs 12 to 36 hours after contact, and causes red, scaly, itchy skin.

Immediate allergic reaction, which usually occurs within minutes of exposure (in those who have already been sensitized on previous exposures to latex) and can involve multiple body systems. Symptoms include:

  • Sneezing or runny nose
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Itchy throat
  • Itchy, watery eyes

If the person progresses to anaphylaxis, symptoms are even more severe, including:

  • Skin rash, usually hives
  • Throat swelling & trouble swallowing
  • Wheezing or trouble breathing
  • Passing out or fainting
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Hoarse voice
  • Stomach cramping, vomiting and/or diarrhea

If you suspect you have a latex allergy, be sure to talk with your doctor before it becomes a severe problem for you

How Are Latex Allergies Treated?

As with most allergies, the best treatment is prevention. You prevent latex allergy reactions by avoiding exposure to latex. If medical gloves are needed, there are nonallergenic varieties, made from synthetic vinyl or nitrile, rather than latex. There is also a new natural rubber latex that comes from the desert plant guayule that is thought to be a safer alternative for people with latex allergy.

For condoms, there is a natural skin product. Unfortunately, while it is an effective deterrent against pregnancy, it is not a barrier for infectious diseases such as HIV and herpes.

If your latex allergy is mild, then anti-inflammatory medications can be effective at providing some relief from symptoms. But, if your reactions are severe, then you should definitely be prepared for anaphylaxis. Most experts recommend that you carry injectable epinephrine, which is the only way to stop anaphylaxis while you wait for emergency help to arrive. You'll find more info here on how to deal with anaphylaxis.

In Summary

Latex allergy is nothing to sneeze at. You need to take it seriously, if you have it, and be prepared for the worst. Make sure your friends and family know what to do too.