Latex Allergies

Latex Allergy

What is a Latex Allergy?

Like other types of allergies, a latex allergy is a reaction to specific proteins found in the natural latex from rubber trees. Natural latex and rubber can be found in nearly every facet of modern life, so a severe allergy to latex can have far reaching consequences. Although latex is commonly used throughout modern society, not all types of latex cause allergic reactions.

Latex? Rubber? What's the Difference?

Poppy Plants Produce LatexMany people use the terms "latex" and "rubber" interchangeably, but these two things are not necessarily the same. Latex occurs naturally in a liquid form found in tens of thousands of plant species. This milky substance is a natural defense mechanism, developed by plants, to protect themselves against pests and herbivores. When exposed to air, the fluid thickens and coagulates.

While all latexes may go through this process only specific types actually contain rubber. It is these types of latexes that contain rubber that are most often responsible for what we know as a latex allergy. There are two basic types of rubber, natural rubber (obtained from a live plant, commonly, Hevea brasiliensis) and synthetic rubber (produced primarily from petroleum). For those who suffer from latex allergies, it is almost always linked to natural rubber, not the synthetic type.

Latex that contains natural rubber has a variety of uses. From gloves and tires to handles and balloons, latex has a nearly endless list of uses in modern society. Though natural rubber is the most important commercial product produced from latex, other types of latex are commonly found in chewing gum.

Allergic Reactions to Latex and Exposure

There are varying degrees of any latex allergy, and like other allergies, they can range from mild to life threatening. As the most common and least threatening form of latex allergy, contact dermatitis is the most common symptom. Contact dermatitis is a general reaction to skin irritants and is characterized by itchy, red skin and even blisters (in more acute cases). It can occur shortly after exposure, but a latent reaction is more common 12-36 hours after exposure. An increase in the severity of the allergy can be marked by several symptoms including respiratory symptoms like wheezing, difficulty breathing, and coughing. A person's sensitivity to latex can vary widely, but in the most severe form, a Type I latex allergy can cause anaphylactic shock and, in rare instances, death.

For most people direct contact with latex triggers the allergic response. Of these, latex gloves are the most prevalent source of the reaction. However, inhalation is another way in which someone can be exposed to latex particles that have shed and become airborne. Either type of exposure can cause reactions in those who are allergic. Regardless of how exposure occurs, avoiding certain products and triggers is the simplest way to avoid allergic reactions.

Have a Latex Allergy? Avoidance Might Be Easier Than You Think

Latex Gloves - A Thing of the PastBecause many types of hardened latex rubber do not cause reactions, like that found in tires or sneakers, some of the most common products with reaction causing latex are gloves, balloons and other things with elastic (certain types of clothing, masks, and goggles). Other products that may contain reaction inducing latex are rubber bands, condoms, carpeting, baby bottle nipples and erasers. Not all of these items will contain latex, but many do. Other products that we think have latex do not cause reactions. These can include things like shoes and latex paints. Remember, not all latex is natural rubber latex.

While that list is not comprehensive, it is not all bad. Due to awareness regarding latex allergies, there are large groups of these products that use non-latex alternatives. Traditionally, latex gloves have been the biggest culprit in causing allergic reactions. Use of natural latex rubber gloves, particularly in the healthcare industry, has waned and most have largely been swapped out for synthetic latex versions, vinyl or nitrile. The same is also true with another very common product, masks. As an example, our line of allergy masks is completely latex-free. These are just a few examples, but for many of the products that traditionally have caused an allergic reaction to latex, there exist non-latex alternatives.

Latex allergies continue to be a concern, particularly for those who suffer from spina bifida and groups who are consistently exposed to latex. Over half of those diagnosed with spina bifida also have latex allergies. Latex allergies amongst health care professionals, as well as those involved in the production of latex, have seen increased instances of the allergy. For the general public, the rate of occurrence has fallen. With proper testing and diagnosis, those who continue to suffer from latex allergies can avoid these irritants without serious lifestyle changes. If you even wonder if a product contains latex, check labeling and if you are still unsure, contact the manufacturer.

For more information about latex allergies, consult with your local allergist or read more here.

Author: Kevin Gilmore

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