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Latex Allergy - Advice for Latex Allergic Individuals

What is natural rubber latex? 

Natural rubber latex is a particular kind of rubber that has been manufactured from the sap of the rubber tree. It is used to manufacture various consumer products.

What is latex allergy?

Latex allergy is an allergy to products made from natural rubber latex. This is different from a rubber allergy which is an allergy to the chemicals found in manufactured natural rubber latex products. If you are found to have a rubber allergy you may require referral for patch tests.

Who suffers from latex allergy?

People most at risk of having or developing a latex allergy are those who have other allergies,  such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever) and regularly use natural rubber latex products (such as latex gloves) in their everyday occupation (including physicians, nurses, dentists, dental hygienists & dental assistants).

What are the symptoms of latex allergy?

Latex allergy often begins with a rash on the hands when using natural rubber latex gloves. Other symptoms include allergic rhinitis type reactions such as itchy swollen eyes, runny nose and sneezing. Some patients may develop asthma symptoms such as chest tightness, wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.

How are latex and rubber allergies identified?

People at risk, or with symptoms of possible latex allergy should be tested with a latex skin prick test by an allergy specialist or undergo a blood test which will detect specific antibodies to latex.

Can my latex allergy get worse?

There is evidence that the more you are exposed to latex, the more allergic you may become. If you only have a minor latex allergy, you should minimise your exposure to latex so that you do not risk becoming more sensitive.

Can a latex allergy be life-threatening?

While it is uncommon, some latex allergic individuals can suffer a potentially life threatening allergic reaction (called anaphylaxis) when they come in to contact with natural rubber latex. Some situations in which anaphylaxis can occur include when blowing up a balloon, during dental surgery or any other surgical procedure, when using a condom, during the examination of the vagina, rectum or colon, and the administration of an enema.

Anaphylaxis occurs within minutes of exposure , especially following direct tissue contact with natural rubber latex products. It is characterised by generalised hives, followed by breathing difficulties and low blood pressure. The reaction may be fatal and must be promptly treated by adrenaline injection.

Is there a relationship between latex allergy and other allergies?

People who are sensitive to other substances (atopic) are more likely to develop latex allergy. This includes people with atopic eczema.   It has been found that there is a strong cross reactivity between certain foods and latex allergy. The foods with the strongest reaction are bananas, avocados and kiwi fruit. Other foods include pawpaws, mangoes, apples, oranges, peanuts, potatoes etc. All these foods contain a common substance. If you experience tingling, itching or discomfort in the mouth or throat whilst eating these foods, you must cease eating these foods. However we believe it is not necessary to avoid these foods until sensitivity develops. This is a subject of continuing research.

Can latex allergy be treated?

No treatments are yet available to cure natural rubber latex allergy. The best 'treatment' is to avoid exposure to latex. Medications are available to temporarily alleviate symptoms.

What precautions should patients with latex allergy take?

  • You need to avoid all latex products. The biggest risk comes from contact with rubber gloves, not just in the medical or dental setting. Balloons, household gloves, gardening gloves, many adhesives and condoms can cause a severe reaction if you use them. 
  • Please tell your doctor or dentist about your 'latex allergic status' when asked about 'drug allergy'. Remember to inform anyone else likely to perform a procedure on you (even your hairdresser!). 
  • Wear a 'medic alert' disc and carry a letter of explanation from your allergy specialist. 
  • Have a first aid kit available. Epipen is a safe and easy form of self injectable adrenaline, but remember to keep a check on the expiry date. 
  • Carry your own supply of non-latex gloves. Don't rely on others to have them in an emergency. They must be used when you have any procedure - pap smears, dental work, blood collection etc. 
  • Any surgical procedure needs to be carefully planned. Your anaesthetist and surgeon will need to be aware of your problem well before the date of the operation, so the operating theatre may be specially prepared. 
  • Condoms are made from latex and cannot be safely used. Unfortunately, there are no latex-free condoms yet available in Australia.  
  • If you are a health care worker (doctor, dentist, nurse etc.) you need special consideration in the workplace in order to avoid exposure to latex. The biggest problem for you is airborne latex particles which arise as a result of powdered glove use. All other staff in your work area will need to wear non-powdered gloves. Your special requirements will need to be discussed with the management team.

(Prepared with the assistance of Mrs Moira Bryant, Health Link, Westmead Hospital).

 

Content updated March 2010

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