The term “latex” refers to the protein in the sap of the Brazilian rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). It also refers to “natural rubber products” made from that sap.
Latex is in many everyday products:
- rubber bands
- condoms and diaphragms
- rubber household gloves
- rubber balls
- and more
Contact with these products can cause an allergic reaction. Some people have allergic reactions by breathing in latex fibers in the air. Some people have allergic reactions from skin contact with latex.
Synthetic latex, such as that in latex paint, does not come from the sap of a Brazilian rubber tree.
Exposure to synthetic latex does not cause the symptoms of latex allergy.
How Do Doctors Diagnose Latex Allergy?
If you think you may be allergic to latex, see a doctor familiar with the condition. To diagnose latex allergy, the doctor will ask you about your medical history and do a physical exam. If they suspect latex allergy, they may order a blood test. The blood test involves looking for latex antibodies in a blood sample. Your doctor compares your test results with your history and physical exam to make a diagnosis of latex allergy.
What Are the Types of Latex Reactions?
There are three types of reactions to natural rubber latex:
- IgE-mediated allergic reactions (Type I). These are true allergic reactions involving the immune system and they can be life threatening.
- Cell-mediated contact dermatitis (Type IV)
- Irritant dermatitis
Irritant contact dermatitis can be the result of:
- Frequent hand washing and incomplete drying
- Use of hand sanitizers
- Friction irritation from glove powder
Anyone who wears powdered latex gloves can develop this condition. In people with allergies, contact dermatitis can be a warning sign that latex allergy may develop.
Symptoms of Allergic Reactions to Latex
Common early symptoms include swelling, redness and itching after contact with latex items:
- Itchy or swollen lips after blowing up a balloon
- Itchy, red or swollen skin after using a bandage
- Swelling or itching of the mouth or tongue after a dentist uses latex gloves
- Itching or swelling after vaginal or rectal exams
- Itching or swelling after using a condom or diaphragm
People highly allergic to latex may have severe reactions from contact with latex. They may even react to a small amount of latex in the air, such as being in a room near latex balloons or gloves. These more severe reactions can include:
- Runny nose or sneezing
- Inflammation of the eyes
- Breathing problems
Do not ignore symptoms that suggest you may be allergic to latex. Continued contact with latex products can lead to more severe reactions. Prolonged exposure to latex can cause people to develop chronic conditions like occupational asthma.
New cases of latex allergy are no longer common.
However, in the 1980s and 1990s, they were much more frequent. Now, many health care facilities use non-latex gloves and products.
Treatment for Latex Allergies
Although medications are available to help reduce the symptoms of a latex allergy, there is no cure. The best way to prevent latex allergies is to avoid products containing latex. If you do come into contact with latex and have a severe allergic reaction (ex: trouble breathing), you should call 911 and/or visit the nearest emergency department for treatment.
For less severe reactions, your provider may prescribe you antihistamines or other medication, which you can take after you’ve come into contact with latex to help lessen your reaction and provide some relief.
Find an Urgent Care Near You
If you think you may be having an allergic reaction to latex, visit one of our Urgent Care locations near you.
About Patrick Donahue, MD
Dr. Patrick Donahue is the Medical Director for WakeMed Physician Practices – Urgent Care.