Some people have an allergic reaction to latex. Someone is said to have an allergy when their body’s immune system overreacts when it comes into contact with what is seen as a harmless substance in someone else.
Latex allergies are rare among the general population, but some people are at higher risk. This is because a latex allergy is more likely to develop after someone has been exposed many times. This is why healthcare workers are one of the most common groups to develop this allergy.1,2
Natural rubber latex versus man-made latex
Natural rubber latex comes from the sap of the rubber tree. This latex is different from man-made (synthetic) rubber. For example, the latex in latex paint is not natural rubber latex. Man-made latex does not contain the same protein and does not trigger an allergic reaction in people who are allergic to natural rubber latex.1
Natural rubber latex is found in many household items, such as:1,2
- Rubber toys and balloons
- Athletic shoes
- Baby bottles and nipples
- Rubber bands
- Elastic waistbands in clothes
It is also found in many medical and dental supplies like gloves, syringes, tubing, dressings, and bandages.1,2
Who is at risk for developing a latex allergy?
Overall, fewer than 1 out of every 100 people in the United States are allergic to latex. Anyone can develop a latex allergy, but there are certain groups at higher risk, including:1,2
- Healthcare workers and others who often wear latex gloves
- People who have had multiple surgeries (10 or more)
- Rubber industry workers
- Children with spina bifida
- People with other allergies
- People who get a rash (contact dermatitis) when using latex gloves
- People who work as food handlers, hairdressers, gardeners, or painters
Symptoms of a latex allergy
Symptoms of a latex allergy may appear after wearing gloves or a bandage, after a medical or dental exam, after using a condom, or blowing up a balloon. Symptoms include:1,2
- Itchy, red, or swollen skin
- Runny nose or sneezing
- Eye inflammation
- Breathing problems or wheezing
Symptoms and severity of the reaction may vary based on the product used. It is also common for people to have a minor reaction at first, then more severe reactions if exposure continues.2
The difference between a latex allergy and a latex reaction
There are 3 kinds of reactions to natural rubber latex:2
- IgE-mediated allergic reactions (type 1)
- Cell-mediated contact dermatitis (type 4)
- Irritant contact dermatitis
IgE-mediated allergic reaction (type 1)
An IgE-mediated allergic reaction (type 1) is the most severe. It happens when a person comes in contact with natural rubber latex and the immune system makes IgE antibodies, causing allergy symptoms. IgE-mediated reactions can cause redness, itching, and hives. This is the type of latex allergy that is most worrisome because it can sometimes be severe or life-threatening if it leads to anaphylaxis.2
Cell-mediated contact dermatitis (type 4)
Cell-mediated contact dermatitis (type 4) is a kind of allergy to latex, but it is not life-threatening. Dermatitis means skin inflammation and irritation. This is normally a reaction to chemicals used to make the latex product rather than the latex protein itself. The reaction often occurs 1 to 3 days after someone comes in contact with the product. It usually resolves on its own.2
This type is different from an IgE-mediated allergic reaction. Because of breaches in the skin from this kind of reaction, the risk of IgE-mediated allergic reaction increases. Four out of 5 people who develop an IgE-mediated latex allergy have cell-mediated contact dermatitis first.2
Irritant contact dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis is a red, itchy rash that occurs where the latex has touched the skin. It is the most common reaction to latex gloves. It looks like cell-mediated contact dermatitis but is not technically an allergy. It is caused by sweating inside gloves, contact with powders in the gloves, and frequent hand washing and hand sanitizer use in people who wear latex gloves. Symptoms usually occur 12 to 24 hours after contact.2
For those with allergies, contact dermatitis may be a sign that you are at risk of developing a latex allergy.2
How is a latex allergy diagnosed?
In the United States, latex allergy is confirmed by an allergy blood test. The allergist will also take a detailed medical history and ask you about your symptoms. Other countries may also use a skin test too.1
Treatment and management of latex allergy
Latex allergies are best controlled by avoiding natural rubber latex and wearing medical alert jewelry. Some precautions include:1,2
- Get a letter from your doctor explaining your need to avoid latex. Share this letter with everyone on your medical care team, employer, friends, and family.
- Remind your medical team about your allergy at every appointment.
- Check labels to make sure products are latex-free.
- Workers with latex sensitivity should not wear natural latex gloves. Coworkers should also switch to man-made rubber gloves.
- Avoid areas where powdered latex gloves and other latex products are used.
- Avoid foods that cause an allergic reaction.
If you are diagnosed with an IgE-mediated latex allergy, talk with your doctor about how to recognize anaphylaxis and what you can do to treat it. Know what you should do in an emergency. Let your loved ones know as well.