When Alex was in dental hygiene school, she suddenly developed allergy symptoms—sneezing, runny nose, itchy eyes, and hives on her hands. She couldn’t think of any new exposures that would cause her symptoms, except for the school environment. After visiting her doctor, she was surprised to learn that the latex gloves she had been wearing in school were causing her symptoms. Alex was diagnosed with a latex allergy.

Natural rubber latex is manufactured from a milky fluid found in the common rubber tree (also called the Para rubber tree or sharinga tree). Many products we use at home, work, and school contain latex, including:

  • Balloons
  • Condoms
  • Diaphragms
  • Disposable gloves
  • Toys
  • Rubber bands
  • Adhesive tape and bandages
  • Baby bottle nipples
  • Pacifiers
  • Goggles
  • Rubber aprons

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, latex allergy occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to proteins found in the natural rubber latex. People with latex allergy are most apt to react to products made of thin, stretchy latex, such as that found in disposable gloves, condoms, and balloons, which are high in these proteins. Products made of hard rubber, such as tires, don’t seem to cause as many allergic reactions. Items made using synthetic latex, such as latex paint, do not trigger allergy.

Powdered latex gloves may exacerbate allergic reactions because the proteins in latex fasten to the powder. When powdered gloves are removed, latex protein/powder particles get into the air, where they can be inhaled and come into contact with body membranes.

Reactions to Latex

Three types of reactions can occur in people using latex products: irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis, and latex allergy.

  • Irritant contact dermatitis —The development of dry, itchy, irritated areas on the skin, usually the hands. The irritation is caused by using gloves, and possibly by contact with other products and chemicals. Irritant contact dermatitis is not a true allergy to latex. It comes on gradually over the course of several days.
  • Allergic contact dermatitis (also known as delayed hypersensitivity or chemical sensitivity dermatitis)—A rash similar to poison ivy, which results from exposure to chemicals added to latex during harvesting, processing, or manufacturing. The rash usually begins 12-48 hours after contact.
  • Latex allergy (also known as immediate hypersensitivity)—A more serious reaction to latex than irritant contact dermatitis or allergic contact dermatitis.

An allergic reaction to latex may cause:

  • Red skin
  • Hives
  • Itching
  • Swelling
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Scratchy throat
  • Chest tightness
  • Lightheadedness

Some symptoms may lead to a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Although rare, a life-threatening reaction can be the first sign of latex allergy.