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Latex allergy: how is latex allergy diagnosed?

 

How common is a latex allergy? Thousands of items we come into contact with every day contain latex. If you suffer from a latex allergy, you’ll experience allergy symptoms when coming into contact with many of these objects – from a rubber glove to a banana.

Latex allergy was discovered in 1927 – but it didn’t really cause a stir until the 1980s. At that time, HIV and AIDS were widespread and it was thought that mere physical contact with an infected person could transmit these viruses. That’s why doctors and nurses wore protective latex gloves, which, naturally, triggered allergic reactions in many of them. When latex-free gloves were introduced, the frequency of latex allergy symptoms decreased by 50 per cent.[1]

Curious to find out more about a latex allergy? Read more about what latex exactly is, how a latex allergy develops, what latex allergy symptoms look like, and how a latex allergy is diagnosed and treated.

What is latex and where is latex found?

South American tree secreting latex components

Latex, also called natural rubber, is the milky-looking chemical compound secreted from the South American rubber tree. Latex is processed industrially into the rubber that is commonly found in the everyday objects we all use. By adding certain additives, natural rubber can also be used to make sweets.[2]

Did you know that the milky substance from the gum tree tastes sweet?

Which products contain latex?

Latex and its rubber products are found in nearly 40,000 everyday consumer items:[2, 3]

  • Chewing gum
  • Car tyres, sealants, mattresses, foam, latex paint
  • Latex clothing, rubber cuffs in clothing, trainers
  • Earplugs, baby bottles, dummies, erasers, balloons, self-adhesive envelopes
  • Condoms, rubber gloves, respiratory masks, medical accessories such as catheters
  • Ski and swimming goggles, diving equipment, gymnastic mats, inflatable boats

    What is a latex allergy?

    A latex allergy is when the immune system mistakes harmless proteins and additives (allergens) in latex products for dangerous pathogens that harm the body. Skin contact with latex and inhaling latex – for example, in fumes from latex paint – can confuse your immune system, causing the body to release IgE antibodies.

    These antibodies aggressively fight the allergens, causing skin discomfort and problems in your respiratory tract. Latex products can contain up to 15 proteins to which a person can be allergic.[3]

    Latex-fruit syndrome: what foods cross-react with latex allergy?

    Between 30 and 40 per cent of people with a latex allergy also suffer from allergy symptoms to certain fruits and vegetables, such as:[4]

    • avocado, tomato
    • banana, papaya, pineapple, mango, date, kiwi
    • potato, celery
    • hazelnut, walnut, cashew

    These foods contain proteins that are similar to the allergens in latex. These proteins confuse the immune system – which, for example, thinks that harmful latex proteins are entering the body when you bite into a banana.[4] This is called a cross-allergy or cross-reactivity.

    If you suspect that you may be affected by cross-reactivity, you can opt to take a food intolerance and food allergy test, as these health tests screen for the most common food allergies and intolerances worldwide – including for reactions to many of the foods mentioned above.

    To read more about cross-reactivity and connected allergies, head over to our dedicated Health Portal article.

    Who is allergic to latex?

    Over the last 100 years, experts have noticed that especially people active in the medical field and care workers struggle with a latex allergy – it may come as now surprise to you that these are often the people who have to work with latex gloves on a daily basis.

    Interestingly, a latex allergy can be genetic: if the parents are allergic to latex, there is also a chance that their child will develop a latex allergy. And children born with neural tube malformation also often suffer from latex allergy.[5–7]

    What are typical latex allergy symptoms?

    As soon as the skin comes into contact with latex or particles enter the respiratory tract, a number of different latex allergy symptoms can emerge, including a latex allergy rash:[2]

    Skin contact

    Inhalation

    Itching

    Sniffling

    Redness

    Itchy eyes

    Blistering

    Breathing difficulties

    Swollen lips

    Coughing


    In the worst-case scenario, anaphylactic shock can occur. This is when the body releases high amounts of the neurotransmitter histamine, which causes blood vessels to dilate and blood pressure to drop rapidly.

    An emergency doctor or paramedic should be contacted as soon as possible. Until they arrive, the allergy sufferer must lie down and keep their legs elevated (in the shock position). If anaphylactic shock is not treated quickly, it can lead to death.[8]

    Latex allergy diagnosis: how to know if you’re allergic to latex

    One way to investigate a suspected latex allergy is to visit a doctor. First, a doctor will try to clarify symptoms and causes in a consultation. They will then carry out a skin prick test, blood test and/or then a provocation test to check whether you react to latex allergens – for instance, with a latex allergy rash. Depending on whether you have mainly skin or respiratory problems, your doctor will apply allergens to your nasal mucosa or put latex gloves on your hand to screen for reactions.[11]

    You can also screen for a possible latex allergy within the comfort of your home. With certain latex allergy tests, you can take a blood sample at home and send it in to specialist laboratories, which then analyse whether your immune system reacts to latex. To do this, it measures the amount of IgE antibodies that the immune system releases when it encounters an allergen.

    Latex allergy treatment: will latex allergy go away?

    woman in supermarket checking for latex products

    If you are allergic to latex and experience latex allergy symptoms, the best latex allergy treatment is to first and foremost avoid latex products in everyday life and look for alternative products you can use.

    For instance, you can now find natural latex-free rubber gloves and condoms on the market. If you have a proven allergy, also watch out for cross-reactions with food. As with an animal hair allergy, you should also carry nasal sprays with cortisone or antihistamines in case a respiratory allergic reaction occurs upon contact with latex.[2]

    Tip: When buying consumer products, make sure that they are really latex-free. If they are only labelled as have a low-latex content, they could still contain traces of latex that may trigger allergies.

    Are there latex alternatives?

    To replace latex, certain industries are turning to substances such as silicone in dummies and nitrile, neoprene and vinyl in rubber gloves.[9] You can find latex-free gloves in any conventional pharmacy or beauty retailer, among other places.

    In the United States, for example, the manufacturer Yulex sells rubber-like material that is free from latex. For some years now, some diving suits have been made of Yulex material, for example. So far, however, Yulex products have not been able to establish themselves on the European market.

    Are you allergic to condoms?

    If you are allergic to condoms, you may have problems using standard condoms, as they are predominantly made from latex. Luckily, however, there are now a wide variety of latex-free condoms on the market for those who are allergic to condoms made from latex. These condoms are made from materials such as plastic, such as polyurethane, or lambskin.

    Polyurethane condoms are similar to standard latex condoms and are proven to be 98 per cent effective.[12] Plastic condoms offer the same protection as their latex counterparts; however, lambskin condoms are said to only protect from pregnancy – not from sexually transmitted infections!

    Latex allergy treatment & curing a latex allergy

    Doctors use hyposensitisation (immunotherapy) as a form of latex allergy treatment to try to reverse an allergy. During this treatment, the allergy sufferer takes small amounts of the allergen so that the body can get used to it. To date, however, there is no successful cure for latex allergy.[10]

    How is latex allergy diagnosed – at a glance

    What is a latex allergy?

    The immune system attacks the body as soon as latex particles come into contact with the skin or respiratory tract – they are mistaken for supposed foreign bodies. If one parent has a latex allergy, children have an increased risk of developing one too.

    What are typical latex allergy symptoms?

    An immune reaction leads to itching and redness on the skin – a latex allergy rash. If latex particles get into the respiratory tract, latex allergy symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath may occur. In some cases, cross-reactivity may occur. In this case, these symptoms also occur when latex allergy sufferers eat foods such as nuts, tomatoes, avocado or bananas. 

    Are there forms of latex allergy treatment?

    Allergy sufferers should take care in everyday life not to come into contact with latex products. When buying items, they should check that they don’t contain traces of latex. There are additionally now products on the market that have been produced for latex allergy sufferers – for example, latex-free condoms for those who are allergic to condoms.

    Sources

    1. Ownby, D. R. ‘A history of latex allergy’, J. Allergy Clin. Immunol. 110, S27–32, 2002
    2. ‘Latexallergie’, available at https://www.ecarf.org/info-portal/allergien/latexallergie/
    3. ‘Latexallergie: Grundlagen’, available at https://www.allergieinformationsdienst.de/krankheitsbilder/weitere-krankheitsbilder/latexallergie/grundlagen.html#c160754
    4. ‘Latexallergie’, DAAB, available at https://www.daab.de/allergien/latexallergie/
    5. Waseem, M., Ganti, S., Hipp, A., Ravi, L. ‘Latex-induced anaphylactic reaction in a child with spina bifida’, Pediatr. Emerg. Care. 22, 441–442, 2006, doi:10.1097/01.pec.0000217662.77927.b4.
    6. Kumar, R. P. ‘Latex Allergy in Clinical Practice’, Indian J. Dermatol. 57, 66–70, 2012, doi:10.4103/0019-5154.92686.
    7. Boettcher, M., Goettler, S., Eschenburg, G., Kracht, T., Kunkel, P., Von der Wense, A., Reinshagen, K. ‘Prenatal latex sensitization in patients with spina bifida: a pilot study’ J. Neurosurg. Pediatr. 13, 291–294, 2014, doi:10.3171/2013.12.PEDS13402.
    8. ‘anaphylaktischer Schock’, Pschyrembel Online, available at https://www.pschyrembel.de/anaphylaktischer%20Schock/K0KHM/doc/
    9. Material Substitutes for Rubber’, available at https://www.ehow.com/list_7504245_material-substitutes-rubber.html
    10. Saleh, M. M., Forkel, S., Schön, M. P., Fuchs, T., Buhl, T. ‘Profile Shift in Latex Sensitization over the Last 20 Years’, Int. Arch. Allergy Immunol. 1–6 (2018). doi:10.1159/000492191.
    11. Latex Allergy Diagnosis and Management’, World Allergy Organization, https://www.worldallergy.org/education-and-programs/education/allergic-disease-resource-center/professionals/latex-allergy-diagnosis-and-management
    12. Kassel, G. ‘How to Have Safer Sex with Polyurethane Condoms’, available at https://www.healthline.com/health/healthy-sex/polyurethane-condoms#pregnancy, accessed on 9 June 2021.

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