What is a latex allergy?
A latex allergy is a reaction to natural rubber latex, a substance that comes from the sap of the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). Many products are made with natural rubber latex, including rubber exam gloves, balloons and condoms. Reactions to latex range from mild to severe and can even be fatal.
People with latex allergies can have an allergic reaction when they inhale (breathe in) latex particles or come into physical contact with latex. Symptoms of a reaction to latex include skin irritation, rash, hives, runny nose and difficulty breathing. There is no cure for a latex allergy. People with this condition should avoid products with latex and consider the use of a med-alert bracelet.
How common are latex allergies?
Latex allergies are rare. Less than 1% of people in the United States are allergic to latex. Latex allergies have decreased in recent years because more hospitals now use latex-free and powder-free gloves.
Anyone can develop a latex allergy, but some people have a higher risk of developing the condition. Risk factors for latex allergy include:
- Repeated exposure to latex: Frequent contact with latex can cause your body to overreact and develop an allergic reaction. People who regularly wear latex gloves are more likely to develop an allergy to latex. Healthcare providers, dentists and people who work in the beauty industry have a higher risk.
- Frequent surgical procedures: Children and adults who have had several surgeries have an increased risk of developing a latex allergy. Children with spina bifida are especially likely to have a latex allergy because treatment for the condition includes multiple medical procedures and surgeries at a young age. Medical supplies for these procedures (including catheters and rubber gloves) often contain latex.
- History of allergies: Other allergies, including allergic rhinitis (hay fever), often occur along with a latex allergy. People who are allergic to latex may be allergic to certain foods, including bananas, kiwis, avocados and chestnuts. The connection between latex allergies and food allergies is called latex-food syndrome.
What are the types of latex allergy?
There are two types of allergic reactions to natural rubber latex. The types of latex reactions are:
- IgE-mediated latex allergy (type I): A person with type I latex allergy is allergic to a protein from the natural rubber tree. Exposure to latex causes the immune system to make IgE (immunoglobulin E) antibodies. These antibodies cause symptoms of an allergic reaction. IgE-mediated latex allergies can be life-threatening.
- Cell-mediated contact dermatitis (type IV): This allergy causes skin irritation and inflammation (contact dermatitis). Blisters may form on the skin, and they may ooze liquid. Cell-mediated contact dermatitis is not life-threatening, but may be very bothersome and in some cases progress to also involve IgE-mediated latex allergy.
What are the symptoms of latex allergy?
Signs of an allergic reaction to latex can be mild or severe. They can appear right after exposure to latex or up to a few hours later. You might not have symptoms the first time you come into contact with latex. Latex allergy symptoms include:
- Skin irritation: Itching, inflammation, redness and swelling appear after skin contact with latex. For example, you may have itchy lips after blowing up a balloon or vaginal irritation after having sex with a partner who used a latex condom.
- Rash: An itchy rash appears where the latex touched your skin. A latex allergy rash usually occurs within a day after exposure. The rash can spread if it touches skin on other parts of your body. But you can get a rash from other factors, such as using too much hand sanitizer or washing your hands too often.
- Hives, runny nose and sneezing: Itchy, watery eyes and inflammation around the nose and mouth are common. Eyes may become swollen and red.
- Trouble breathing: People who have severe allergic reactions may wheeze or have difficulty breathing. In severe cases, anaphylaxis may occur. Anaphylaxis can be fatal. If you or someone you know is having an allergic reaction and can’t breathe, call 911 or go to the emergency room.
What causes latex allergic reactions?
During an IgE-mediated allergic reaction, your body’s immune system overreacts to a substance (like latex) that isn’t harmful to most people. Your immune system tries to protect you by releasing a chemical called histamine into your bloodstream. Histamine causes symptoms of an allergic reaction. You may experience hives, runny nose and trouble breathing.
An allergic reaction to latex can happen when you touch or come into contact with latex products. Your immune system may also react if you breathe in tiny latex particles in the air. You may not have a reaction the first time you’re exposed to latex. With each exposure, your allergic reactions may get worse.