Medically Reviewed by Dr. Elisabeth Vincent Hamelin
Natural latex is obtained by incision of the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). Mainly contains water and rubber particles. Crude latex also contains water-soluble proteins and it is precisely the latter that is responsible for inducing allergies, even if in the various finished products, obtained from latex, the content of these proteins is strongly influenced by the type of processing to which the starting material was submitted. Furthermore, during the manufacturing process, various additives are added to the latex (e.g. preservatives, antioxidants and substances that prevent the formation of lumps), in order to give the finished product the desired characteristics. Although not responsible for sensitization reactions, these substances have been involved in the appearance of contact dermatitis.
For its undeniable qualities (elasticity, resistance, flexibility, barrier properties) natural rubber is used for the manufacture of numerous products for daily use, both domestic (rubber gloves, adhesive tapes, condoms, teats, toys, clothing accessories ) that doctor (gloves, patches, bandages, tourniquets and many other devices). There are therefore multiple opportunities to come into contact with latex. Allergy usually occurs by direct contact. It can also occur by inhalation even if this is a problem especially at a professional level related to the use of gloves lubricated with corn starch which disperses into the environment together with small particles of allergenic substances which are thus inhaled by the operators.
How it manifests itself
The real allergy is due to the presence of specific antibodies for the proteins contained in the latex, antibodies that are produced by subjects predisposed following a first encounter with the allergen (latex). In these subjects the allergic reaction occurs within minutes of contact. Symptoms can be limited to the skin area of contact (e.g. hands) or diffuse (localized or generalized urticaria) leading, in severe cases, to angioedema, bronchospasm up to anaphylactic shock. Allergic forms from contact with the hands are not to be confused with simple irritative contact dermatitis, which has a gradual onset (over several days) and is manifested by redness, chapping, peeling of the skin, until the appearance of sores . The diagnosis of latex allergy includes an evaluation of the patient’s history and symptoms by an allergist who will ascertain the presence of signs and symptoms typical of the allergy, confirmed then by carrying out specific tests.
What to do?
To minimize the risk of sensitization, contact with latex should be limited as much as possible. In case of known allergy, here are some simple precautions to follow:
- avoid contact with any type of latex material
- bring along a plate that allows you to identify your condition as a latex allergic person and warn the health before being subjected to interventions or diagnostic investigations
- obtain gloves in alternative materials to keep at home and to take with you on the road for an emergency. There are gloves made of synthetic polymers (e.g. neoprene) that have excellent characteristics in terms of elasticity, tactile sensitivity and protection capacity (similar to classic surgical gloves), while others (e.g. those in polyvinyl or polythene) can be used in various tasks, such as household cleaning. Warning: the term “hypoallergenic glove”, shown on the glove boxes, indicates a lower content in additives and NOT in proteins capable of causing allergy!
- use special condoms made of synthetic polymers (e.g. polyurethane)
- bring a pack of self-injectable adrenaline with you in case the allergy should manifest itself with serious systemic reactions.
Some people with latex allergy may also manifest sensitizations towards certain foods, especially of plant origin, which contain proteins similar to those of latex (banana, pineapple, peach, apricot, plum, cherry, melon, figs, grapes, avocado, mango, papaya, chestnut, potatoes, tomatoes, celery, milk, eggs). In most cases, no dietary restrictions are necessary, except when the ingestion of these foods causes full-blown allergic symptoms (itching, edema, etc…).