Why has latex allergy become a problem?
Latex allergy became a problem in the 1990s. This allergy can trace its origins to the demand for universal precautions brought on by the appearance of AIDS. To meet the demands of universal precautions, changes were made in the manufacturing of latex products, specifically latex gloves.
Additionally, there is some disbelief and lack of acceptance regarding latex allergy, which may lead to increased risk and continued exposure.
Reactions to latex can include skin irritation, such as contact dermatitis (irritation of the skin). Latex may cause hives, swelling, nasal inflammation and asthma. There have also been cases of anaphylaxis (an extreme, sometimes life threatening reaction) to latex. Fortunately, this has become rare. The latex industry and medical community made changes to decrease significantly the occurrence of latex allergy in children.
What is latex?
Latex is a milky fluid found in some plants, particularly rubber trees. It is this specific substance in rubber trees that causes the latex allergy. Latex paint does not contain natural rubber, so latex paint is not a cause of latex allergy.
There are a number of populations at risk for developing latex sensitivity. Children who have spina bifida (“split spine”), health care providers and those who have had extensive urologic surgical procedures have a higher frequency of reactions to latex. Approximately 70 percent of children with spina bifida and more than 20 percent of health care workers have latex sensitivity. There have also been increases in the general population in groups previously thought not to be at increased risk of sensitization. About 5 percent of the general population has latex sensitivity.
In children with spina bifida, there are a number of factors that increase the risk of an anaphylactic (potentially life threatening) reaction. Those factors are:
- Contact sensitivity
- Food allergy
- Reaction to adhesive tape
- Daily rectal disimpaction
- More than nine surgeries
- Increased latex-specific IgE (antibodies that respond to allergens)
- Elevated IgE
The diagnosis of a latex allergy is made by obtaining a history and performing a physical examination. Currently, there is no skin test available to test for latex allergy, but a blood study is available.
As with all allergies, the most effective form of therapy is avoidance. It may be difficult to find a latex-free environment, however, it is possible to strive for a latex-safe environment.
Recommendations for avoidance include:
- No direct contact with latex implants or toys. (Pacifiers and toys such as Kush balls and balloons are made with natural rubber latex. Look for latex-free alternatives.)
- No opening of powdered latex products while in the same room
- No powdered latex gloves
- Wash hands after using natural rubber latex products
- Read labels
Cross Reactions Between Foods And Latex
There are a number of foods that cross-react with natural rubber latex. The list of these foods has become extensive when any degree of cross-reactivity is detected. The foods with the highest levels of cross-reactivity with latex are:
What is the future of latex allergy?
There have been extensive efforts to provide a latex-safe environment for at-risk children. Proper and easy-to-understand labeling has been an issue. Skin test materials may become commercially available and new treatment protocols may be recommended as well. For now, know which products are safe and which to avoid. An allergist can help with the diagnosis, avoidance and management of severe reactions.