Natural latex rubber is a plant product manufactured from the cytosol/latex of the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. The cytosol/latex is a milky fluid obtained from the bark of the tree, which is then processed to make natural latex rubber. Natural rubber is extensively used in household, medical and industrial products such as toys, belts, rubber bands, flooring, gloves, medical devices, tires etc.
Latex allergy results when the immune system responds inappropriately to proteins in the latex product. It can present as one or more of the following after exposure to latex products –
- Irritant contact dermatitis: This is the most common form of reaction to latex products and results in a dry, irritated skin rash. It is not a true allergy but is an irritant effect from repeated hand washing, use of soap and sanitizers, especially in those who use gloves frequently.
- Allergic contact dermatitis: Symptoms of allergic contact dermatitis may include itchy, red rash, scaling, wheals, blisters or burning. It commonly occurs from gloves, shoes or medical products and is confined to areas where the product touched the skin. The rash usually appears 1-2 days after contact with latex. Contact dermatitis is diagnosed with allergy patch testing.
- Contact urticaria: This results in the development of welts or hives within minutes of exposure to latex. Most commonly, this occurs on the hands after using latex gloves.
- Rhinitis/Asthma: In this condition, breathing latex coated particles from powdered gloves results in symptoms of hay fever or rhinitis (sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, itchy eyes, tearing) or symptoms of asthma (cough, wheezing, difficulty breathing or tightness in chest).
- Anaphylaxis: Anaphylaxis from latex allergy is an uncommon but potentially serious condition. Symptoms may include hives, swelling of throat, difficulty breathing, wheezing, dizziness, passing out and anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis from latex most often occurs during medical care situations such as during surgical procedures or bladder catheterizations.
Diagnosis of latex allergy is made by a careful medical history, physical examination and blood testing. Management of latex allergy involves complete avoidance of all latex-containing products. Latex-allergic people should make sure they get latex-free products when buying household goods. They should also carry latex-free examination gloves with them when going to the doctor or the dentist, in case the health care facility does not have non-latex gloves available right away.