Latex Allergies

February 3, 2017

Latex is a milky sap produced by rubber trees. The sap is blended with chemicals during manufacturing to give latex its elastic quality. Natural rubber latex is often found in rubber gloves, condoms, balloons, rubber bands, erasers and toys.

A latex allergy is an allergy to products made from natural rubber latex. Some of the other chemicals used in making latex products can cause serious allergies, as well. Also, latex gloves are dusted with powder to make them easier to put on and take off. When this powder combines with the latex protein, it can get into the air when the gloves are used and be inhaled. The allergy-causing particles become attached to the cornstarch powder in gloves, swimming caps and balloons. Moisture from the skin can enhance this process. The particles can become airborne and inhaled when products are used. Sensitized individuals react to these particles. Milk protein is sometimes mixed in with latex in surgical and household gloves and this can be the cause of reactions in milk allergic individuals.

This type of allergic reaction is the same type that occurs in hay fever, allergic asthma and peanut allergy. It can vary in severity from a mild nettle rash on contact, to severe anaphylaxis with respiratory symptoms and collapse. It is potentially fatal but deaths are fortunately very uncommon.

Hundreds of products may contain latex –

  • Medical devices (gloves, blood pressure cuffs, IV tubes and catheters);
  • Dental items (dams and orthodontic rubber bands);
  • Clothing (the elastic waistbands in pants and underwear);
  • Children’s items (toys, bottle nipples, pacifiers and teething toys);
  • Household items (rugs, bathmats and rubber gloves);
  • Personal care items (diaphragms and condoms);
  • Office and school supplies (rubber bands, erasers, rubber cement and paint).

Who is at Risk?

People at greatest risk include –

  • People with allergies who may have cross reactions
  • Children with spina bifida or multiple surgeries
  • Health care workers and housekeeping staff in health facilities
  • People who require frequent medical procedures, such as catheterization
  • Child care providers
  • Food service workers
  • Workers in tire factories and rubber manufacturing
  • Others who must wear latex gloves at work.

Types of Latex Allergies

There are three different kinds of adverse reactions to latex, although they do overlap to a certain degree. These include –

Irritant dermatitis – Characterized by crusty skin lesions. Irritant dermatitis isn’t the same as latex allergy, because it can be caused by a wide range of other factors, including washing with harsh soap or the action of sweat inside rubber gloves. However, irritant dermatitis is often a starting point for the development of latex allergy. Broken skin allows the absorption of latex. Without intervention, people with genetic susceptibility will progress from irritant dermatitis to latex allergy.

Allergic contact dermatitis – This skin problem is caused by a reaction to the chemicals added to latex during processing, not to the latex proteins themselves. Typically, symptoms (including rough skin patches and a weeping rash) tend to develop a few days after exposure. Once again, this is not true latex allergy. However, the absorption of latex through broken skin can increase the risk of latex allergy in susceptible people.

Immediate-type latex allergy – In genetically susceptible people, initial exposure to latex prompts the immune system to create antibodies. On subsequent exposure to latex, the body mounts an immune system response, which includes the release of histamine. This can cause a wide range of sudden reactions including hives, swollen lips and, in severe cases, anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis, or anaphylactic shock, is an emergency and can be fatal.

How are people exposed to latex?

Respiratory exposure – Cornstarch powder is sometimes added to disposable latex gloves during manufacture to make them easier to put on. Latex proteins leach into the powder and become airborne when the gloves are removed. Inhaling the powder can cause respiratory sensitisation in susceptible people.

Skin exposure – Skin exposure can occur from handling latex products and wearing latex gloves. During glove use, chemicals added during manufacture and latex proteins can leach out of the glove material causing skin sensitisation in susceptible people. Skin exposure can also occur from touching surfaces that are contaminated with powder from powdered latex gloves


Research has identified a protein substance in natural latex as a major source of the allergy. The protein can be absorbed through the skin or the powder containing the protein can be inhaled. However, chemicals such as zinc diethyldithiocarbamate (which is added to the latex) and starch powder (found in new gloves) have also caused allergic reactions in sensitive people. Actually, it is the protein in the glove material that has been absorbed by the cornstarch that causes the allergic reaction. Powder-free gloves cause fewer allergic problems.

Latex allergy is an occupational health hazard for many people including –

  • Health care workers (operating room workers, dental care workers, special procedure and general medical nurses, emergency response workers).
  • Laboratory technicians.
  • Greenhouse workers.
  • Hair salon workers.
  • Glove manufacturing workers.

Food service workers:

  • Police and/or enforcement.
  • Other workers who use latex gloves for protection.

Cross Reaction – Around half of all people with latex allergy have allergic reactions when People who have a latex allergy may be allergic to some foods, as well. This is called a cross reaction. When this happens, your body Latex responds with the same allergic symptoms that you would have if you were exposed to latex. Cross reactions differ from one person to another. Someone may have a reaction to all the foods noted to cause cross reaction while another may have no reaction at all. Likewise, if you are allergic to any of these foods, you may also be allergic to latex:

  • apples, bananas, kiwi, peaches, plums, figs, grapes, melons, papaya, passion fruit, cherries, nectarines, pears, pineapple and strawberries;
  • carrots, celery, raw potatoes, avocados and tomatoes;
  • chestnuts and hazelnuts;
  • wheat and rye


Latex allergy can be mild or severe, with symptoms such as –

  • Itchy, red, watery eyes
  • Sneezing or runny nose
  • Coughing
  • Rash or hives
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath

Some people who wear latex gloves get bumps, sores, cracks or red, raised areas on their hands. These symptoms usually appear 12 to 36 hours after contact with latex. Changing to non-latex gloves, using glove liners, and paying more attention to hand care can help relieve these symptoms.

A person who is highly allergic to latex can also have a life-threatening allergic reaction, called anaphylactic shock. Symptoms include –

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Wheezing
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rapid or weak pulse
  • Loss of consciousness

Someone having an anaphylactic reaction needs immediate medical attention.


Allergic reactions may be treated by removal of the latex product and drug treatment according to the type of symptoms developing. If the symptoms are irritant contact dermatitis, antihistamine and/or corticosteroid medicines may be enough to treat symptoms. Severe reactions should also be treated with epinephrine, intravenous fluids, and other support by hospital or emergency personnel.

If you have a latex allergy, it is important for you to wear a MedicAlert bracelet and carry two emergency epinephrine syringes.

If you’ve had a severe allergic reaction to latex, you may need to carry injectable epinephrine with you at all times. If you go into anaphylactic shock, you may need:

  • An emergency injection of adrenaline (epinephrine)
  • A trip to the emergency room
  • Oxygen
  • Corticosteroids

Alternative Treatment         

Quercetin – A flavonoid and antioxidant found in many plants that may help reduce allergic reactions. Some people may get more benefit from the water-soluble form of quercetin, called quercetin chalcone. Quercetin may impact the way the liver metabolizes certain medications.

Vitamin C – Supports immune system function and enhances the effect of quercetin. Lower the dose if diarrhea develops.

Zinc – Zinc may help protect against gastrointestinal symptoms (stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea) that sometimes accompany anaphylaxis. Zinc can potentially interfere with some medications, including antibiotics and cisplatin (Platinol-AQ).

Alpinia galangal – One of several plants commonly called galangal and used as a spice in Thai food, Alpinia galanga is a member of the ginger family. Preliminary animal studies suggest it may have antihistamine properties. Take capsules or drink tea.

Chinese skullcap – May have antihistamine properties. Do not use Chinese skullcap if you are pregnant or nursing. Chinese skullcap can potentially interact with a variety of medications.

Licorice – Has been used traditionally to support the immune system and may have antihistamine properties. Licorice should only be used under the direction of a trained physician.

Stinging nettle – May have anti-inflammatory and antihistamine properties. Look for freeze-dried, encapsulated nettles, which are believed to retain most of the antihistamine effects of the plant.

Sweet chestnut tree – Contains quercetin and reduced skin and blood vessels reactions.

Spreading sneezeweed – Contains flavonoids and is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for its anti-inflammatory and antihistamine effects.


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