What is Latex?
Natural rubber latex comes from the sap of a tree found in Africa and Southeast Asia. The sap is processed and molded to make countless products with the flexibility and strength of natural rubber.
What Products Contain Latex?
A few examples of latex-containing products used in healthcare are: disposable gloves, tourniquets, intravenous tubing, rubber bands, catheters, wound drains and rubber tops of multidose vials.
Household products include pacifiers, condoms, balloons, rubber gloves and some sports equipment.
What is a Latex Allergy?
An allergy is a reaction caused by the immune system to chemical substances that the body comes in contact with.
Just as a person with hay fever (allergy to certain plants) develops itchy eyes, nasal congestion, drainage and even asthma when there is a lot of pollen in the air, people with latex allergy may develop symptoms of itching, rash, watery eyes and nose and asthma when exposed to latex.
People with severe latex reactions may rarely become critically ill when exposed.
Who is at Risk for Latex Allergy?
People who are exposed to latex frequently, either through their work or through chronic, indwelling catheters or multiple surgeries, have a greater chance of developing a latex allergy than people who are not exposed to latex frequently.
Some examples of work exposure are health care workers and food service workers who may often wear latex gloves, and workers in plants that manufacture latex. People who have allergies to foods that may cross-react with latex are more prone to latex allergy. For example, people who are allergic to certain tropical fruits such as passion fruit, bananas and papaya as well as some other fruits are more prone to latex allergy.
Generally, people who are allergic to other substances, like dust, plants or animal hair, are more likely to be allergic to latex.
What are the Symptoms of Latex Allergy?
The symptoms of latex allergy can differ depending on the type of exposure and the severity of the allergy.
People can have localized symptoms such as a rash in the area where the latex touches (such as the hands), or the symptoms can be more generalized with itchy eyes, scratchy throat or asthma.
How Can I Tell if I Have a Latex Allergy?
Any employee who wears latex gloves and develops a rash, especially on the hands, should go to Occupational Health service for an evaluation.
Employees with allergic symptoms that seem to be much worse or only present during work hours should also go to Occupational Health. We will take a history and investigate the sources of exposure and possible allergies. Blood tests and/or skin tests can be used to confirm an allergy to latex.
Are All Glove Rashes Due to Latex Allergy?
No. In fact, the majority of hand rashes or dermatitis in latex glove users is not due to latex. The most common source of dermatitis or rash is dryness or irritation from constant hand washing, incomplete rinsing of cleanser and the drying action of the glove powder.
Some people also are allergic to a few of the compounds used to make latex sap into elastic material. These compounds cause a contact dermatitis type of rash that may look similar to the rash from poison ivy or from certain metals in jewelry.
It can be difficult to separate the various types of rashes and the causes. Going to Occupational Health will allow us to investigate the causes so your skin can heal. Once the cause is pinpointed, we can help you to prevent future problems.
What Does "Airborne Exposure" to Latex Mean?
If someone is allergic to latex, the latex protein particles in the air may bring on an asthma attack or a generalized allergic reaction. When latex containing products, for instance gloves (especially powdered gloves) are pulled on and off and handled in general, the latex proteins may be released into the air (with the powder).
People who are very sensitive to latex may have problems being in an area where there are airborne particles, even if they avoid wearing or touching latex products. For example, an Operating Department nurse with a very severe latex allergy may have symptoms while working in the OR even if that nurse uses non-latex gloves and avoids handling latex products.
Can Latex Allergy Be Prevented?
Reducing exposure to latex may decrease the likelihood of developing the allergy. Gloves are now being manufactured with lower levels of the latex allergy proteins, and health care institutions are looking at ways of reducing exposure to latex in general.
Also, if your hands are chapped or sore from dryness or other irritation, your skin absorbs more latex proteins, thus increasing your risk of developing the allergy.
Can Latex Allergy Be Treated?
Usually, the treatment for an allergy is avoiding the offending substance. In the case of latex or other glove components, if the allergy is limited to a local reaction, then the person can usually substitute vinyl or other non-latex gloves and continue working at the same job.
If the allergy is more severe, the person may have to avoid areas where latex is in the air. If the problem is not an allergy but an irritation, medication can be used to clear up the dermatitis, and, often, latex glove use can be continued.
It's important to go to Occupational Health as soon as you notice problems so a management regimen can be started.
How Should Health Care Workers Who Wear Latex Gloves Take Care of Their Hands?
It's important to keep your hands as free from irritation as possible. Here are a few suggestions for taking care of your hands:
- After washing your hands with soap or cleanser, make sure to rinse thoroughly.
- Dry hands thoroughly but gently before putting on new gloves.
- Moisturizers may help combat dryness, but if you use a moisturizer, it must be water based. Oil-based or petrolatum-based products may damage latex and decrease the protective barrier of the glove. U-M Occupational Health Services can give you a sample of a product we use, which can be ordered through your department.
- If you use a moisturizer, make sure not to contaminate the containers. Individuals should have their own tube of moisturizer and should not share with others.
- Always wash hands before putting on moisturizer.
What Should I Do if I am Having Problems with Gloves or Concerns About Latex Allergy?
If you have any concerns or are experiencing rashes or breathing problems that you think may be related to glove use or latex, call Occupational Health (734) 764-8021) and schedule an appointment for a consultation.
Our nurse practitioners, in conjunction with the Occupational Health physician or other consultants, will work with you to control your symptoms, avoid further problems and minimize disability while preserving your health.