Prather Pediatric and Allergy Center - Ask Doctor Brent

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Category: Lagniappe - a little extra

What is latex?
Latex is a milky white sap which drips from the Brazilian rubber tree when the bark is cut. It is a major ingredient in most rubber products.

Rubber made with latex (called “natural rubber latex” or NRL) is very popular because of its strength, flexibility, ter resistance and elasticity. Thousands of common household items contain NRL, from shoes to pacifiers to carpet backing. Because it is also an effective barrier against bacteria and viruses NRL is routinely used in products such as surgical gloves and condoms to stop the spread of infectious disease.

Depending on how the latex is manufactured, two kinds of NRL can be produced. Crepe rubber is hardened, and is used in products such as tires and rubber balls. Liquid latex, on the other hand, is used to make thin stretchy products such as rubber bands, balloons, and surgical gloves.

The good news is the vast majority of latex sensitive people are only allergic to liquid latex products. The bad news is the – with infectious disease control so prevalent in health care settings – the use of liquid latex products has skyrocketed during the past ten years. During the same ten year period, latex allergy has become increasingly common, especially among health care workers. Today it is estimated that 5 to 10 % of all health care workers have latex allergy.

What are the symptoms of latex allergy?
There are two kinds of latex allergy symptoms: delayed and immediate.

The most common symptom of delayed latex allergy is an itchy, red, mildly swollen rash which appears only on areas of the skin which actually touched the latex. Symptoms typically emerge 10 to 30 hours after contact. In severe cases, blisters may appear. These symptoms are usually caused not by the latex itself, but by certain chemicals added to rubber during processing. (The exact substance which causes the allergic reaction – in this case, the chemical – is called an allergen.)

Symptoms occurring within minutes of exposure to the latex are usually immediate reactions may involve parts of the body which did not actually touch the NRL. For example, contact with latex gloves during a dental exam or surgery may cause hives over the entire body. In the most severe cases, immediate allergic reactions ma involve the airways, lungs, and heart, leading to life-threatening situations. Symptoms to immediate allergic reactions include:
* Hives, or itchy welts that may appear on any part of the body.
* Hay fever-like symptoms, including nasal stuffiness, sneezing, a runny nose, and itching of the nose or eyes.
* Anaphylaxis a life-threatening reaction which includes blocked airways, swelling of the throat, and a drop in blood pressure.

The allergens at fault in immediate allergic are proteins which are actually part of the latex as it occurs in nature.

Gloves which are labeled “hypo-allergenic” will not cause delayed allergic reactions. However, “hypo-allergenic” gloves may cause immediate reactions.

How can I be certain I am allergic to latex?
Your doctor will first take your medical history to get a complete understanding of your symptoms and their possible causes. For instance, you will be asked where you were and what you were doing when you first noticed your symptoms. You will probably also be asked whether you have asthma or any other allergies whether you frequently come in contact with latex products at home or on the job, whether you have been hospitalized, and how often o have had surgery.

Your doctor will then give you a physical examination, paying special attention to the skin, head, and chest. Since severe reactions can result from an extremely tiny amount of allergen, most doctors currently base their diagnosis of latex allergy on the results of a thorough medical history, physical exam, and blood tests.

How did I become allergic to latex?
The tendency to develop allergies is inherited. If you are like most people with latex allergy, you probably have other allergies as well. As a matter of fact, people with latex allergy are often also allergic to banana, avocado, and chestnut!

As with all allergies, you must be repeatedly exposed to latex before you develop a sensitivity to it. The more frequently and intensely you come in contact with latex, the more likely you are to develop the allergy.

For this reason, health care workers – who are surrounded by NRL items in their workplace – often develop latex allergy. Those same health care settings put patients who have multiple surgeries at high risk. In particular, nearly half of all children with spina bifida (who have numerous surgeries) are allergic to latex.

Do I actually need to touch latex to have a reaction?
Unfortunately, no. You may react after you touch fluids tat have been in contact with latex. This is especially important in health care settings, since you may be given medications from a drug vial or IV tube containing latex parts. IV tubing may have latex parts, but the tubing is not latex.

Some people are so sensitive that they have a reaction when they simply inhale air which carries latex allergen. For instance, sensitive people may react to inhaling the corn starch powder which comes off of latex gloves. People react to rubber balloons sometimes when they are at a party which is decorated with balloons and in rare cases, after driving in a care which recently transported latex balloons.

Can latex allergy be treated?
The best way to prevent an allergic reaction from latex is to reduce your latex exposure as much as possible.

Medications may help relieve your symptoms, but there are no medicines that will prevent you from having an allergic reaction to latex. Doctors are still experimenting to see whether giving someone medicine before exposure to latex will reduce the severity of the reaction.

If you have a red, itchy rash of a delayed reaction, your doctor may suggest rubbing on corticosteroid cream or ointment on your skin.