Latex allergy: symptoms and treatments

Latex allergy: symptoms and treatments

Present in many everyday products and in medical equipment, latex is a substance that can cause allergies. What are the symptoms of latex allergy? Who are the people most at risk? Can it be treated? Answers with Dr. Ruth Navarro, allergist.

What is latex?

Latex is a substance that comes from a tree, the rubber tree. It appears as a milky liquid under the bark of the tree. Cultivated mainly in tropical countries (Malaysia, Thailand, India), it is used to manufacture more than 40,000 products that are well known to the general public, including the most common: medical gloves, condoms, chewing gum, balloons, rubber bands and straps for clothing (bra for example) and baby bottle nipples.

What is latex allergy?

Latex allergy occurs when a person who comes into contact with the substance for the first time develops an abnormal immune response that will lead to an allergic reaction upon a second contact with latex. The allergic reaction and accompanying symptoms are related to the production of immunoglobulin E (IgE), antibodies to latex proteins.

Who is affected?

Between 1 and 6.4% of the general population is allergic to latex. All age groups are affected, but some people are more at risk than others of developing this type of allergy. “People who have undergone several surgeries at a very young age, such as spina bifida or urinary tract surgeries, but also healthcare professionals who often use latex gloves are populations more likely to suffer from a latex allergy,” reports Dr. Navarro. The proportion of people with latex allergy is also higher in atopic patients.

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The symptoms of latex allergy

Symptoms are different depending on the type of exposure to the allergen. “The allergy does not translate the same way if the contact with latex is skin and respiratory or if it is blood. Contact with blood occurs when a health professional intervenes inside the abdomen with latex gloves during an operation, for example,” says the allergist.

Local reactions

Thus, a distinction is made between local and systemic reactions. In the local reactions, we find the cutaneous signs:

  • contact eczema due to irritation;
  • redness of the skin
  • local oedema;
  • itching.

“All of these symptoms are characteristic of a delayed latex allergy, which means that it occurs within minutes or hours of coming into contact with the allergen,” says Dr. Navarro.

Respiratory and eye symptoms

Latex allergy can also cause respiratory and eye symptoms when the allergic person breathes in the particles released into the air by the latex:

  • breathing difficulties;
  • coughing;
  • shortness of breath;
  • Stinging eyes;
  • watery eyes;
  • sneezing;
  • runny nose.

The most serious reactions

Systemic reactions, which are potentially more serious, affect the entire body and appear rapidly after latex comes into contact with blood (during an operation). They result in swelling of the mucous membranes and/or anaphylactic shock, a medical emergency that can lead to death if not treated quickly.

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Treatments for latex allergy

The treatment for this type of allergy is the avoidance of latex. To date, there is no specific latex desensitization treatment. The proposed treatments only allow for the relief of symptoms when the allergy occurs. “To relieve skin symptoms, a cortisone-based ointment can be proposed,” says the specialist. Antihistamine medications are also prescribed to alleviate moderate local skin, respiratory and ocular reactions.

Treatment for severe reactions

In the case of a severe reaction such as anaphylactic shock, treatment is based on an intramuscular injection of adrenaline. If you are faced with a person who has difficulty breathing, swelling of the face, loss of consciousness and hives all over the body, place him or her in the lateral position of safety (PLS) and then immediately call 15 or 112. When they arrive, the paramedics will inject adrenaline. Patients who have had a previous episode of anaphylactic shock should always carry an emergency kit containing an antihistamine and an auto-injectable epinephrine pen in case it happens again.

Practical advice in case of latex allergy

If you are allergic to latex :

  • Always tell the health care professionals you see;
  • Always carry a card mentioning your latex allergy to inform first aid workers in case of an accident;
  • Avoid contact with latex objects (latex gloves, latex condoms, balloons, swimming goggles, rubber bathing caps…). ). “Fortunately, there are alternatives to latex for certain objects. There are vinyl condoms and hypoallergenic gloves made of vinyl or neoprene.
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Beware of latex-food cross-allergies!

Latex contains proteins that are also found in foods and this can lead to cross-allergies. A person who is allergic to latex may also be allergic to avocado, banana, kiwi or chestnut.

Therefore, if a patient is suspected of being allergic to latex, the allergist can check for cross-allergies with the above-mentioned fruits during the diagnosis. The diagnosis begins with an interrogation of the patient to find out the conditions of onset of the symptoms, the different symptoms of the suspected allergy and the extent of exposure to the allergen in question.

The allergist then performs skin tests (prick tests): he or she places a small amount of latex on the skin of the forearm and sees if it reacts abnormally (redness, itching, etc.). Blood tests can also be prescribed to establish a diagnosis of latex allergy.

References

  • interview with Dr Ruth Navarro, allergist.