Latex is a natural rubber made from tree sap that is used in items such as balloons, rubber bands, baby bottle nipples, and condoms. It is also
found in hospital equipment, including gloves and tourniquets. As a natural product, it contains proteins that can sometimes cause allergic reactions.
Types of Latex Allergies
Latex allergies are not all the same. The most severe latex allergy is an IgE-mediated immune system reaction (a true type I hypersensitivity). Its onset occurs suddenly, within minutes of exposure, and can result in a range of allergy symptoms, including hives, swelling, and nasal irritation (rhinitis). Occasionally, a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis can occur. Anaphylaxis symptoms can include a dramatic loss of blood pressure, shock, bronchoconstriction (similar to an asthma attack), and airway blockage due to swelling.
Some latex gloves contain cornstarch powder to make them easier to put on and remove. The cornstarch can adhere to latex particles and become airborne, causing respiratory symptoms in people with type I latex allergy.
A more common but less severe type of latex allergy is contact dermatitis, sometimes called allergic contact dermatitis or delayed-type contact dermatitis. Onset is 12-36 hours after skin contact. The main symptom is an itchy or painful rash at the site of contact, which can include blistering and oozing. This type of “allergy” is actually a type IV hypersensitivity mediated by T cells, not by IgE antibodies.
Exposure to latex increases the risk of developing latex allergies. People who have multiple surgeries are at a higher risk. Latex allergies can be an occupational disease for health care workers, who have about a 10% risk of developing either type I or type IV hypersensitivity.
Since the risk of developing a latex allergy is directly related to exposure to latex protein, hypoallergenic latex products that contain minimal amounts of latex protein can prevent the disease from developing. Some companies have developed low-protein latex products that retain the useful qualities of latex while reducing the risk of causing latex allergies. Non-latex products such as vinyl and nitrile gloves are another option.
The incidence of latex allergy seems to have peaked in the 1990s due to increased use of latex gloves in clinical settings. Fortunately, the incidence no longer seems to be increasing.
People with latex allergies have a small risk of cross-reactions to allergens botanically related to latex plants. These allergies include bananas, avocados, and kiwi fruits.
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI), 2007. “Tips to Remember: Latex Allergy.” AAAAI.org website.
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration (OSHA) https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/hospital/hazards/latex/latex.html