If you have ever returned home after a doctor’s gloved examination to find your examined skin red and itchy, you may have a latex allergy rash. If you have ever worked in a lab and noticed hives forming on your forearms, right above your disposable gloves, you may be allergic to latex. Or if you have ever wondered why that elastic waistband on your favorite pair of pants makes your skin itch, you may be sensitive to latex.
Latex allergy is becoming increasingly more common. In fact, the Center for Disease Controls and Prevention in the United States estimates that one to six percent of Americans have a latex allergy.
With the prevalence of latex in our modern lives, it’s important to arm yourself with knowledge and information, especially if you or someone you love has a latex allergy. Here’s what you need to know about latex allergy and how to treat a latex allergy rash.
WHAT IS LATEX?
Latex is a natural rubber found in the sap of a rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensi. This tree is found in various parts of the world including Brazil, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Latex is often used to manufacture many of the products in the healthcare industry such as disposable gloves, IV tubing, dental dams, airway and intravenous tubings, syringes, stethoscopes, catheters, dressings and bandages. Latex can also be found in many consumer goods, such as condoms, handbags, latex balloons, athletic shoes, underwear leg and waistbands, rubber toys, baby bottles, nipples and pacifiers.
Natural latex should not be confused with synthetic latex. Synthetic latex is a synthetic rubber made from chemicals and include things such as household “latex” paints. These products do not trigger an allergic reaction because they do not contain the proteins found in natural latex.
WHAT IS A LATEX ALLERGY RASH?
A latex allergy rash is a rash that appears after contact with a product or substance containing the latex protein. In most cases, a latex allergy rash is a mild reaction that will usually resolve itself or resolve with the administration of an antihistamine. In rare instances, however, latex allergies can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.
For individuals allergic to latex, direct contact or even airborne contact with the offending allergen can trigger an over-exaggerated immune system response that leads to redness, itching, and in rare instances, death.
In many cases, a latex allergy develops after repeated exposure to latex. A person could be exposed to latex for years and have no reaction, and then one day discover that their skin is itchy and irritated after taking off a disposal latex glove. This is a common occurrence in the healthcare industry where latex products and materials are often used. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America estimates that 8 to 17 percent of all healthcare workers have this allergy.
Latex allergy rashes most often appear after direct contact with latex. However, it is also possible to have a reaction to latex that is airborne. This can occur if a person works in an area where rubber latex is manufactured or even in a medical or dental setting where lots of latex products are used.
WHO ELSE IS AT RISK?
Anyone prone to allergies who works with or is often exposed to latex often has an increased risk in developing a latex allergy. The following is a list of people who are at high risk:
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology estimates that half of the people with a latex allergy also have other types of allergies, including hay fever (allergic rhinitis) and other food allergies. Often, these people are also allergic to certain foods that contain proteins biologically similar to those found in latex. This type of reaction is called cross-reactivity. Certain foods such as avocados, bananas, and kiwis are considered foods that have a high association with latex protein. In other words, people with a latex allergy may also experience symptoms when they consume these foods.
Foods that have a modern association with latex include apples, carrots, celery, papayas, melons, tomatoes, and potatoes. Foods that have a low association and are least likely to cause a latex allergy reaction are cherries, figs, grapes, nectarines, pineapples, strawberries, and plums. It’s also important to note that other cross-reactive foods include tree nuts, and legumes (almonds, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans and walnuts), grains (wheat and rye), and shellfish (crab, lobster, and shrimp.)
If you have ever had a reaction after consuming these foods, it is important to discuss this with your doctor.
Symptoms of a latex allergy can range in severity from an annoying red rash that goes away on its own to a severe, full-blown, life-threatening anaphylactic reaction that causes trouble with breathing and swallowing.
A mild reaction to latex produces symptoms that include:
These symptoms could develop immediately after contact to the latex protein or they could take 12-36 hour to show up in a delayed reaction. In these mild reactions, a doctor will often prescribe antihistamines.
Although it is rare, in severe cases, contact with latex can cause the following symptoms:
If you experience any of these severe symptoms, you may be experiencing anaphylactic shock. You must use an epinephrine auto-injector and then call 911. It is important that you go to the hospital immediately so that your condition can be monitored by a doctor. The latex allergen protein may still be present in your system and it is possible to have another anaphylactic episode.
In some hypersensitive individuals, airborne latex proteins can also trigger the following reactions:
If you suspect you may be allergic to latex, it is important to discuss this with your health professional.
Like most other allergies, latex allergies can be diagnosed with an allergy blood test that measures allergic antibodies, or IgE antibodies. Some doctors and allergist also conduct skin testing to help make a diagnosis.
Like most other allergies, the best treatment is avoidance of the offending allergen. However, if you accidentally come in contact with the latex protein and develop a latex allergy rash, a doctor may prescribe an antihistamine, such as Benadryl, to reduce the itching and redness. In severe reactions in which a person’s ability to breathe becomes compromised, an injectable epinephrine pen is often used to arrest anaphylaxis.
IS A LATEX ALLERGY RASH PREVENTABLE?
The best way to prevent a latex allergy rash is to reduce your contact with latex. Although the prevalence of latex in the modern world makes it difficult to avoid completely, you can take the following steps to make sure you minimize your exposure.
It is also important to know what products contain latex so you can work to avoid them. The following is a list of items that are known to contain latex:
Although rarely life-threatening, a latex allergy rash can produce uncomfortable symptoms that may take hours to go away. However, with the rise in latex allergy awareness, many hospitals, doctor and dental offices have switched to non-latex alternatives. Many medical supply companies have also created products and devices that no longer include latex. If you or someone you love suffers from a latex allergy, it’s important to know what products are manufactured with latex so you can avoid them. It’s also imperative to let everyone who takes care of you know you are allergic to latex so they can ensure your safety. The best plan of treatment is prevention!