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Latex Allergy

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

This article originally appeared on page 19 in the July 3-4, 2004 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Wellness, Doctor's Corner.

There has been a lot of talk going on about latex allergies. Latex is a totally natural substance that comes from a plant. Like other plant substances, some human immune systems over-react when they come in contact with it. Latex is found in the tropical rubber tree. The characteristics of rubber enable its use in numerous household items. These include tires, condoms, balloons, baby soothers, toys, gloves, adhesives, medical devices and many other items. Latex is extracted as a thick sap and then processed. It is not a synthetic substance. Different compounds are added to accelerate its transformation into rubber. There are at least ten different proteins identified in the sap of the rubber tree which can produce allergic reactions. Interestingly, proteins found in plants related to the rubber tree can also cause cross-reactions. For this reason, persons with latex allergies should avoid bananas, kiwi, avocado and tomatoes among others.

There are several types of allergic reactions. The most frequent reaction is a Type IV reaction seen in persons who wear latex gloves or use latex condoms. These are delayed reactions and result in rashes, redness, blisters or a weeping type of eczema. There is even a suggestion that this reaction may not be due to latex but to other chemicals used in manufacturing. The cure is simple and consists of avoidance by switching to a non-latex product. Another type of latex allergy is called Non-Immune Contact Dermatitis. With time, the hands begin to develop dryness, fissures and cracks. The most worrisome latex allergy is called a Type Immediate Hypersensitivity Reaction or Type I. The onset is within minutes and the symptoms consist of facial swelling, generalized itching, lightheadedness, nausea, abdominal cramps and difficulty breathing. It progresses into shock and requires immediate medical attention. These individuals must avoid latex products completely, and must carry medic-alert bracelets and epi-pens.

There has been an increase in the number of people exhibiting latex allergies. It is not yet certain whether this is simply due to more latex exposure in our busy world, or perhaps a sensitization mechanism may be at work. Latex is common in medical gadgets and health aids. Mild latex allergies are difficult to spot. Catheters, condoms, gloves are common sources. Some women develop severe redness, abdominal cramps and pain after intercourse using latex condoms. This may be attributed to the latex proteins in the condoms. Cornstarch is commonly sprinkled in surgical gloves to aid gowning and give a smooth feel. It was discovered that latex proteins could ride on the starch particles and become airborne when the gloves were taken off. In a more global perspective, there are billions of rubber car tires grinding away on our roadways liberating minute particles as you read this. This has been associated as one possible contributor to increased asthma rates, but other health consequences are yet unproven.

There are no certain ways to test for latex allergy. Half of the people with latex allergies have been found to be sensitive individuals who have allergies to other substances. Scratch testing is risky to do, but an IgE blood test is available with a high false negative rate. It is more likely that latex condoms trigger a pre-existing allergy.

Related resources:

Safety and Health Topics: Latex Allergy from U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

Latex allergy from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Latex Allergy from Mayo Clinic.

Latex Allergies from WebMD.

Latex Allergy Links.

ALERT: Preventing Allergic Reactions to Natural Rubber Latex in the Workplace from National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

Patient/Public Education: Fast Facts: Latex Allergy from American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI).

Latex Allergy from WebMD Medical Reference.

Latex Allergy. Definition from MayoClinic: "Latex allergy is a reaction to certain proteins found in natural rubber latex, a product manufactured from a milky fluid derived from the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) found in Africa and Southeast Asia. If you have a latex allergy, your body mistakes latex for a harmful substance."

Latex Allergy Affects Mostly Healthcare Workers from HealthLink, Medical College of Wisconsin.

Allergic to Latex Condoms from Estronaut: A Forum for Women's Health.

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