Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the Harvard Medical School


What Is It?

A latex allergy is a hypersensitivity to latex, which is a natural substance made of the milky sap of the rubber tree. Latex allergies arise when the immune system, which normally guards the body against bacteria, viruses and toxins, also reacts to latex. In any type of allergy, when the immune system reacts against an otherwise harmless substance, the substance is called an allergen.

When the immune system detects the allergen, a type of antibody named immunoglobulin E (IgE) is produced, triggering the release of chemicals within the body. One chemical is histamine. Histamine is partly responsible for the redness, itching and swelling that can occur in the skin during an allergic reaction, and it produces symptoms of hives, rashes, a runny nose, and watery, swollen eyes. Histamine can also lead to breathing difficulties and a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis that can include a sudden drop in blood pressure, an increase in pulse, and tissue swelling.

Latex is a flexible, elastic and relatively inexpensive material used in a number of healthcare and consumer products. Because it forms an effective barrier against infectious organisms, latex is used to make hospital and medical items, such as surgical and examination gloves and some parts of anesthetic tubing, ventilation bags, respiratory tubing and intravenous (IV) lines. In addition, it is used in making countless consumer products, including balloons, condoms, diaphragms, rubber gloves, tennis shoe soles, nipples for baby bottles and pacifiers, toys, rubber hoses and tires. Seven million metric tons of latex are used in manufacturing each year.

As the use of latex products increases, so does the incidence of latex allergies. Latex examination gloves are used routinely when health care workers do procedures or handle body fluids. Because of their exposure to latex, health care workers are at increased risk of developing a hypersensitivity to latex products.

In addition to workers whose occupations expose them to latex, people who undergo repeated surgical procedures can develop latex allergies. For example, children born with the birth defect called spina bifida are usually exposed repeatedly to latex products because they need a series of medical and surgical procedures. About 50% of children with spina bifida develop a latex allergy.

People can become sensitized to latex as a result of direct contact with natural rubber products. Inhaling latex particles is a common way for health care workers to become sensitized to latex. Many medical gloves are coated with cornstarch to make them easier to pull on and off. Cornstarch absorbs the latex proteins, and then carries them into the air where they can be inhaled.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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