Latex allergy is a reaction to certain proteins found in natural rubber latex, a product made from a milky fluid from rubber trees. If you have a latex allergy, your body mistakes latex for a harmful substance. Latex allergy may cause allergic reactions ranging from skin irritation to anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening condition. Your doctor can determine if you have a latex allergy or if you're at risk of developing a latex allergy. Understanding latex allergy and knowing common sources of latex can help you prevent allergic reactions.
If you're allergic to latex, you're likely to react after being in contact with the latex in rubber gloves or by inhaling airborne latex particles released when someone removes latex gloves. Latex allergy symptoms range from mild to severe, depending on your sensitivity and the degree of latex allergen exposure. Your reaction can worsen with repeated latex exposure.Mild latex allergy symptoms include:
- Skin redness
- Hives or rash
- Runny nose
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Scratchy throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Anaphylactic shock symptoms
The most serious allergic reaction to latex is an anaphylactic response, which can be deadly. Anaphylactic reactions develop immediately after latex exposure in highly sensitive people, but anaphylaxis rarely happens the first time you're exposed.
Signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- Difficulty breathing
- Hives or swelling
- Nausea and vomiting
- Drop in blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
- Rapid or weak pulse
In a latex allergy, your immune system identifies latex as a harmful substance and triggers certain antibodies to fight the allergen. The next time you're exposed to latex, the antibodies signal your immune system to release histamine and other chemicals into your bloodstream, producing a range of signs and symptoms. The more exposure you have to latex, the more strongly your immune system is likely to respond (sensitization).
Latex allergy can occur in these ways:
- Direct contact. The most common cause of latex allergy involves touching latex-containing products, including latex gloves, condoms and balloons.
- Inhalation. Latex products, especially gloves, shed latex particles, which you can breathe in when they become airborne. The amount of airborne latex from gloves differs greatly depending on the brand of glove used.It's possible to have other reactions to latex that aren't allergies to the latex itself. They include:
- Allergic contact dermatitis. This reaction to the chemical additives used during manufacturing produces signs and symptoms — usually a skin rash similar to that of poison ivy, including blisters — 24 to 48 hours after contact.
- Irritant contact dermatitis. Not an allergy, this form of dermatitis most likely is an irritation caused by wearing rubber gloves or exposure to the powder inside them. Signs and symptoms include dry, itchy, irritated areas, usually on the hands.
Not all latex products are made from natural sources. Products containing man-made (synthetic) latex, such as latex paint, are unlikely to cause a reaction.
Although medications are available to reduce the symptoms of latex allergy, there is no cure. The only way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid products that contain latex. However, despite your best efforts to avoid latex, you may come into contact with it. If you've had a severe allergic reaction to latex, you may need to carry injectable epinephrine with you at all times. For less severe reactions, your doctor may prescribe antihistamines, which you can take after exposure to latex to control your reaction and help relieve discomfort.