Latex Allergy

What is latex?
Latex is a natural rubber harvested from trees and can be found in more than 40,000 consumer products, from household items to toys. Examples of these items include baby bottle nipples, teething rings and pacifiers, balloons, some bandages, condoms, diaphragms, elastics in clothing, erasers, hoses, makeup, rubber bands and stretch textiles.

Why is the incidence of latex allergy rising?
Latex allergy is recognized as an increasingly serious medical problem that affects not only health care workers, but also the general population. This increase may be attributed to health care workers' increased use of latex gloves as a universal precaution to combat the spread of bloodborne diseases such as AIDS, HIV and hepatitis B. The incidence of latex allergy now approaches 25 percent for health care workers (dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants, physicians, nurses, etc.), and two percent of the general population.

What are the symptoms of latex allergy?
An individual with latex allergy can experience a range of symptoms, including hay-fever type reactions such as itchy, swollen eyes, runny nose and sneezing. Hives, dermatitis (skin rash) and asthma are the most common reactions. The most severe allergic reaction is the potentially fatal anaphylactic shock, which is characterized by the following symptoms: generalized flushing of the skin, nettle rash (hives) anywhere on the body, a sense of impending doom, swelling of throat and mouth, difficulty in swallowing or speaking, alterations in heart rate, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, sudden feeling of weakness (drop in blood pressure) and unconsciousness.

If an individual goes into shock, an injection of adrenaline must be administered as directed and an ambulance must be called. Adrenaline (epinephrine) acts quickly to constrict blood vessels, relax muscles in the lungs to improve breathing, stimulate the heartbeat and reduce swelling around the face and lips.

Who is at risk for developing latex allergy?
Almost everybody is exposed to latex, but not everyone who manifests symptoms of latex allergy has been diagnosed. As a general rule, people who are continually exposed to latex-usually at work-or have had multiple surgeries have a higher risk of developing an allergy to latex.

If you suspect you have an allergy to latex, talk to your physician about getting a latex prick skin test; a positive test result can confirm latex allergy. Other tests can rule out sensitivity to other allergens.

Is contact with gloves the only problem?
Prolonged exposure to airborne latex dust from powdered gloves can trigger an asthmatic reaction. The starch powder in the lining of many gloves worn by health care workers "picks up" the latex proteins, which are carried airborne when the wearer removes the gloves. The proteins then contaminate objects or surfaces in the room. If an individual with latex allergy inhales the powder or their skin comes into contact with these objects or surfaces, this can trigger an allergic reaction.

Surgical procedures cause some of the most severe allergic reactions because latex comes into direct contact with moist areas of the body and internal surfaces, causing faster, easier absorption of the allergen.

What should I do if I am allergic to latex?
Be sure to inform your dentist about your latex allergy as part of your complete medical history. This includes any drug allergies. If you have been diagnosed with latex allergy, inform your dentist before treatment and ask the office whether it has latex-safe products available for use during a dental procedure or surgery. Request that your appointment be scheduled as the first procedure of the day before latex proteins can build up in the air; this can lessen your exposure to latex allergens.

Take the following precautions:

  • Carry an adrenaline kit (Ana-Kit or EpiPen) to treat possible severe allergic reactions.
  • Use a medic alert bracelet that clearly states your allergy. You may also want to carry a letter of explanation from your allergist.
  • Carry a pair of latex-free gloves (gloves made of nitrile or vinyl are alternatives to latex) in case of an unscheduled emergency visit with a dentist.
  • Avoid contact with latex products as much as you can.
  • Take steps to find out which products around you contain latex.
  • Find other products that you can use that do not contain latex.
  • If you are not aware that you have the allergy (which many people are not) and you suffer symptoms following a dental procedure or from contact with any latex products, consult an allergist immediately and inform your dentist.