Latex is natural rubber and is obtained from the sap of the Hevea brasiliensis tree. Synthetic rubber is made from petrochemicals and contains no latex. The production of latex is complex, involving the addition of many chemicals and often a corn starch powder to prevent the layers of latex sticking together, as might occur in gloves. Latex may attach to the corn starch and become airborne, increasing the risk of allergic rhinitis and asthma. The use of non-powdered latex gloves reduces the risk of the development of latex allergy, but does not abolish it.
“Most people who are allergic to latex have had repeated exposure to latex over many years.”1
It is therefore very common in health care practitioners, and especially if the individual has an atopic tendency.1
Wearing latex gloves when hands are damp after hand washing, or sweating within the latex gloves, both increase the risk of the development of contact dermatitis. This is the commonest form of latex allergy; the latex protein is more rapidly absorbed from moist skin.
People that have true latex allergy are also at increased risk of developing several specific food allergies. Some of the proteins in latex are also found in banana, kiwi fruit, passion fruit, strawberries, plums, tomato and avocado. Avoidance of these foods is only necessary if they cause allergic symptoms themselves.
The most feared reactions to latex are the Type 1, IgE mediated immediate reactions, such as anaphylaxis. Overall, though, the most common complication of latex exposure is irritant dermatitis. This does not have an allergic basis, but it increases the risk of severe latex allergy development though increased absorption of the latex protein through the damaged skin. Contact dermatitis, a true allergy, will then develop. This is the most common immediate reaction, typically hives and local swelling on direct contact with latex, and is histamine mediated.
If latex allergy or allergy to the chemicals associated with its production is suspected, skin prick testing or serum RAST (IgE) measurement can be arranged. Avoiding latex (gloves and certain medical equipment, such as catheters) is important; vinyl or synthetic rubber gloves are an effective substitute.
1. Latex Allergy. Australian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy. 2015