Products containing latex, such as gloves, balloons or condoms, can produce allergic reactions and even cause a cross-reaction with foods.
Latex is obtained from the tree Hevea brasiliensis. Ten or 20 years ago latex allergy was regarded as an occupational allergy that was particularly common in people from the medical professions. Allergic reactions are usually evident as a local urticarial rash, but sometimes as more ominous reactions such as facial swelling, shortness of breath or shock.
Causes and triggers of latex allergy
Latex is used in a wide variety of products because of its physical properties, wearing comfort and low price. During use of these products, various proteins in the latex can trigger allergies.
Latex articles used in the medical setting
Gloves, wound drains, urinary catheters, hot water bottles, Ambu bags (manual resuscitator: device used when ventilating intubated or non-intubated patients suffering from respiratory arrest or insufficient spontaneous respiration), blood pressure cuffs, dental wedges and rubber dams (dentistry), dressings, rectal tubes, etc.
In everyday life
Balloons, condoms, erotic products, therapeutic and muscle strengthening bands, elastic in clothing, stretch underwear, anti-slip shower and bath mats, dummies (pacifiers), flip-flops, swimming caps, grips (e.g. on handbags or bicycles), hot water bottles and much more.
Powdered latex gloves more commonly trigger allergies because they have higher concentrations of latex proteins owing to different manufacturing processes. The powder can also get into the surrounding air, be inhaled and thus aggravate or even trigger symptoms. The switch from powdered natural latex gloves to powder-free or entirely latex-free gloves in hospitals has had a very positive impact.
Latex allergy sufferers may also have cross-reactions to foods whose proteins have a similar structure to the latex allergens. These include pineapple, avocado, bananas, sweet chestnuts, figs, potatoes, kiwi-fruit, mango, melon, papaya, passion fruit, peaches, spinach and tomatoes. It is not uncommon to have a cross-allergy to a popular house plant, the weeping fig (Ficus benjamina).
Symptoms of a latex allergy
In most cases latex allergy develops after skin or mucosa is in direct contact with materials containing latex. Direct skin contact can result in local nettle rash (hives or urticaria) with itching, reddening of the skin and small or large swellings. If there is no direct contact, about half of sufferers react with symptoms of the airways (asthma, allergic rhinitis) or red, itchy eyes.
Latex allergens absorbed through the skin/mucosa are spread in the body via the blood and can therefore cause urticaria anywhere on the body, swollen lips and various mucosal reactions as well as other symptoms (runny nose, asthma attacks, swelling affecting the mouth, throat and larynx, gastrointestinal symptoms). Severe anaphylactic reactions, such as a drop in blood pressure, loss of consciousness and cardiac arrest, occasionally occur.
Diagnosis and differential diagnosis
The diagnosis is based on thorough history-taking as well as skin and blood tests. Provocation tests can also be done with objects containing latex.
Therapy and treatment
People suspected of having a latex allergy should consult an allergy specialist. If allergy is confirmed, they will be given an allergy card. It is up to them to tell attending physicians, dentists and medical staff about their allergy. Depending on the severity of their symptoms, sufferers are issued with emergency medication (antihistamine, cortisone and possibly adrenaline auto-injector) after being fully instructed on how to use them. Although latex allergy should still be taken seriously, it is an allergy that can be avoided.
Tips and tricks
- Replace objects and clothes containing latex by latex-free products. Nowadays there are lots of artificial fibres that can replace natural latex without loss of quality and thus minimise the risk of allergy.
- Always carry your allergy card and tell medical staff about your allergy.
- Do not use powdered latex gloves.
Facts and figures
The incidence of latex allergy is 2% in the overall population worldwide and 10–17% among people working in the medical sector.
People suspected of having a latex allergy should consult an allergy specialist.
People with an atopic predisposition and people already suffering from an allergy have a higher risk than people without these risk factors. Latex allergy occurs most frequently in the following occupational activities and sectors because of possible contact with natural latex:
- cleaning staff
- beauty and cosmetics industry
- staff working in kitchens and food companies
- medical and dental personnel (especially surgical staff)
- workers in the rubber-processing industry
- occupations in which people work with seals and insulation
People who have had a lot of operations or those who had to undergo surgery in early childhood because of anomalies (e.g. spina bifida, kidney/bladder malformations) may develop a latex allergy if they are predisposed.
aha! Swiss Allergy Centre helps
- The booklet "Allergies – simple to explain" is available in English
- Education and courses on the subject "Allergy, asthma, chronic bronchitis" (in German)
- Apps for smartphones: e-symptoms, PasseportAllergie (in German, French, Italian and English)
- Products and services awarded the Swiss Allergy Label – an added benefit for sufferers.
- Experts on the aha!infoline will be happy to answer personal queries: Monday to Friday, 08.30–12.00.
- aha!shop: other booklets and factsheets provides detailed information and are available in German, French, Italian
- aha!kinderlager for children with allergies aged between 8 and 12 years (in German or French)
- aha!jugendcamp for youngsters aged between 13 and 16 years (in German)
- Other education and courses on the subject "Neurodermatitis", "Anaphylaxis" (in German)
- We value your opinion. Or would you like to exchange experiences with other sufferers? Find out more in german under "Advice and exchange" (in German)
- Your donation will enable us to provide important services to people with allergies, asthma and neurodermatitis. Your support will be put to effective use. Many thanks.