If you know or suspect you are allergic to latex, visit your GP and seek a referral to a specialist, even if your symptoms have so far been mild.
According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), around 1-6 per cent of the general population is thought to be potentially sensitised to latex, although not everyone who is sensitised will develop symptoms (HSE website). The number of people with latex allergy rose from the 1980s but fell again from the late 90s.
Allergic conditions in general have risen in recent years, including latex allergy. Another major factor from the 1980s onwards was the widespread use of latex gloves, particularly in the healthcare profession. The NHS decided that healthcare workers must protect themselves against the risk of infection from blood-borne diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B. This led to a high demand for latex gloves and, in order to meet this demand, there were changes in the way gloves were produced and high-protein gloves came onto the market. These gloves were likely to be a major cause of the rise in the number of healthcare professionals with latex allergy from the 1980s.
High-protein gloves are no longer used in hospitals and latex-free alternatives are now more widely used. This led to a sharp fall in latex allergy from the late 1990s.
People with an allergic tendency (where there is allergy in the immediate family) are more likely to develop latex allergy than families without allergies.
People having multiple surgeries are also at a higher risk of developing latex allergy, for example, children with spina bifida (Rendeli et al., 2006). Their risk depends on how much they are exposed to latex gloves and catheterisation devices.
People with certain food allergies such as banana, avocado, tomato, potato, kiwi and chestnut are also at risk (Brehler et al., 1997; Wagner & Breiteneder, 2002) because the proteins in these foods are similar to the proteins in latex. Potatoes can cause contact reactions when people with latex allergy peel potatoes, but cooked potato is not usually a problem. Other fruits and vegetables that have been linked with latex allergy include lychee, papaya, passion fruit, fig, melon, mango, pineapple, peach, lettuce and cannabis (Cabañes et al., 2012), (Niggemann et al., 2002). If you are allergic to any of these, you may also be allergic to latex, and vice versa.
Symptoms usually come on quickly, within minutes of contact with latex. Mild symptoms may include nettle rash (also known as hives or urticaria) anywhere on the body.
More serious symptoms include:
In extreme cases, there could be a dramatic fall in blood pressure, known as anaphylactic shock. The person may become weak and floppy and may have a sense of something terrible happening. This may lead to collapse and unconsciousness.
Having asthma, especially if it’s not well controlled, is a major risk factor for more serious allergic reactions in people with Type I latex allergy.
Some people with Type I latex allergy will have symptoms simply by being in a room where powdered latex gloves are being used. This is because the latex allergens become attached to the cornstarch in powdered gloves. The powder becomes airborne when the gloves are used and can be breathed in. Similarly, some people with serious latex allergy may react if they are near a balloon display.
Type IV latex allergy is a delayed reaction to chemicals used in the manufacturing of latex. It affects the skin, which is known as contact dermatitis. Symptoms include a red itchy scaly rash, often in the area where the latex was used such as the wrists and forearms with glove use. Symptoms may spread to other areas of the body.
Type IV latex allergy is treated with emollients (moisturising treatments applied to the skin to soothe and hydrate it) and topical steroid creams. Where practical, you can take steps to avoid contact with latex to reduce the risk of a reaction.
In all cases, whether you think you have Type I or Type IV latex allergy, it’s important to see your GP as soon as possible. Some GPs have a clear understanding of allergy, but allergy is a specialist subject so it is more likely that they will need to refer you.
We believe strongly that all people with Type I allergy symptoms should be referred to an allergy clinic, although in reality many people with Type I latex allergy are seen in a dermatology clinic. Those with Type IV symptoms are usually seen in a dermatology clinic, but there can be overlap in Type I and Type IV symptoms which makes it difficult to make a diagnosis.
Once you get a referral, the consultant will discuss your symptoms with you in detail as well as your medical history. To diagnose Type I latex allergy, the consultant may perform skin prick tests and blood tests. They may also perform a “challenge” test where you are exposed to latex in strict conditions with medical supervision.
To diagnose Type IV latex allergy, patch testing is used. This is where diluted rubber accelerator chemicals added to latex during processing (not usually the natural rubber protein latex itself) are applied to the skin. The test is run over several days because with a type IV reaction there is a delay between contact with the allergen and the appearance of symptoms. The length of this delay can vary from hours to several days.
Hot water bottles
The contraceptive cap
Adhesives including hair glue
Sports equipment such as basketballs, hand grips and gym mats
Swimming cap and goggles
Some foam rubbers – latex mattresses are common
Calculator/remote control buttons
Floor screed for levelling floors – although this is usually sealed under tiles or lino
Shoe soles and tyres are made with what is known as ‘dry’ rubber. Our expert advisers believe that allergic reactions to dry rubber products are uncommon and mainly experienced by people with a serious latex allergy. When seeing a consultant, ask about your individual level of risk.
Examination and surgical gloves
Oral and nasal airways
Bungs and needle sheaths on medicines
Blood pressure cuffs
Latex urinary catheters are a common cause of allergic reactions, and silicone catheters can be used as an alternative.
Whenever you are having a medical procedure, tell your healthcare providers about your allergy, including doctors, nursing staff, anaesthetists and dentists.
Some people with Type I latex allergy may also react to certain fruits and vegetables, including banana, avocado, tomato, potato, kiwi, chestnut, lychee, papaya, passion fruit, fig, melon, mango, pineapple, peach and lettuce. This is known as cross-reactivity, where the proteins in latex have a similar structure to the proteins in these foods.
Symptoms normally affect the mouth on contact with the food and are usually mild, although we advise you to discuss this with your consultant. You might have tingling or itching in the lips, tongue or throat, but a few people have more serious reactions. If you have latex allergy, identify any foods that might be causing you a problem.
Some flu vaccines have a latex needle sheath. Public Health England says the risk for people with latex allergy is considered negligible. However, a member of our clinical panel who is an expert on latex allergy has questioned whether this product is in fact safe for people with latex allergy. We strongly recommend that you discuss this at your local surgery before receiving the influenza vaccine and request a vaccine that does not have a latex needle sheath.
The NHS Specialist Pharmacy Service provides a list of local anaesthetic preparations used in dentistry and notes whether latex is used as a material in the manufacture of the product, its container and packaging
Being diagnosed with latex allergy can be daunting but thinking ahead and having coping strategies can help.
For Type I latex allergy
For Type IV latex allergy