When you think about allergies, you probably imagine the way your nose runs and drips during pollen season or perhaps all the MAY CONTAIN PEANUTS warnings that pop up on a surprising number of products at the grocery store. Sure, peanuts and pollen are common allergens which you’ve probably heard of – along with dust, cat and dog dander, and maybe even fish or shellfish, especially if you live near the coast.
But did you know that there are actually a huge number of substances found all around the world that people can be allergic to?
And did you know that latex happens to be one of them?
It’s true! Latex is a widely used material which can be found in everything from medical gloves to Band-Aids to fashionable dresses and suits. But as it has grown in worldwide popularity over the past few years, so too has the number of people with latex allergies grown.
It’s still a pretty small total – scientists estimate about 1% of the population of the US, and less than 1% of the global population suffer from some form of latex allergy. But that total is increasing every year as latex becomes a bigger than ever part of our daily lives. And absolutely everyone has a chance of being allergic to latex or even of developing said allergy as an adult, so, even if you’re allergy-free right now, a few years down the line you might find yourself sporting some brand new symptoms.
Of course, that probably leads you to ask the question that’s burning in your mind right about now:
If me or somebody I know is allergic to latex, does that mean I can’t wear fashionable latex clothing like the stuff you sell at Laidtex?
Luckily, the answer is “not necessarily”.
But the answer isn’t that simply. It could probably use some clarification. Before you can determine whether or not you can safely wear latex clothing, you need to understand what is causing your latex allergy, how severe it is, and what symptoms you have experienced or might experience.
And, of course, if you are a latex allergy sufferer, you should always talk to your doctor or allergist before purchasing any latex products, even those which are marketed as hypoallergenic or allergy-free. None of the staff here at Laidtex are certified doctors or allergists, and we cannot legally clear those with allergies to safely purchase our products.
What we can do, however, is educate you about the causes and symptoms of a latex allergy, as well as how to determine when you should get tested if you think you might be allergic. We’ll even briefly discuss cross-reaction allergies – other, similar allergies which commonly co-exist with a sensitivity to latex. Reading this article and talking to a doctor or allergist will help you make an informed decision about whether or not our latex clothing products are right for you.
What Causes a Latex Allergy?
What we commonly refer to as a “latex allergy” is in fact two different allergies. While the symptoms which manifest in sufferers of both are often very similar to one another, the two types of latex allergy are completely distinct and have two different causes.
The first and most commonly occurring of the two is an allergy to certain proteins found in the sap of the rubber tree. Natural latex originates as a thick, milky white sap produced by the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, which is native to the South American rainforest and also grows in various Asian countries. The purpose of the liquid latex is to protect the tree from sources of danger such as insects, mold, fungus, bacteria, and diseases such as leaf rot.
What this also means is that insects, fungus and other “attackers” register the liquid latex as a harmful substance. Their bodies, in fact their very cells, reject the latex and try to fight against it. In the case of bugs or other animals which might try to feed on the tree’s bark or wood, the latex sap makes them feel sick so as to discourage them from continuing.
Similarly, some human bodies recognize the proteins found in liquid latex as a harmful substance, and become sick or in pain when they come in contact with them. This is what is referred to as a latex allergy. Scientists studying the composition of liquid latex have discovered 13 distinct proteins which are capable of causing an allergic reaction in humans. You could be allergic to only one of these proteins, any combination of them, or even all thirteen at once.
The other type of latex allergy is a sensitivity to the chemical additives used in the creation of synthetic latex. Rather than utilizing the natural rubber tree sap, synthetic latex is made from petrochemicals – substances such as styrene and butadiene which can be derived from petroleum and other fossil fuels.
Because the resulting latex product is significantly weaker and lower quality than its natural counterpart, many additives such as chemical flame retardants or insect repellants are often put into the mix during the manufacturing process. Scientists are not currently sure how many of these chemicals and additives are capable of producing allergic reactions in humans, but the number is suspected to be very high.
Developing the Allergy Over Time
Like all allergies, a reaction to latex can be something which you are born with. Nowadays, allergies have become so common among the human race that doctors will often perform a wide variety of allergy tests shortly after a baby is born. It is very possible that you will have a sensitivity to latex from the day you are born. In some cases, it may fade or become weaker as you grow older; in others, it may persist with consistent severity throughout your life or even worsen as you age.
While any child can theoretically be born allergic to latex, there are several factors which make this allergy more likely to occur. Of course, if your parents were allergic to latex, or if latex allergies run in your family, you have an increased chance of being born with this allergy.
In addition, children who require frequent surgeries or other medical procedures during infancy or early childhood are highly likely to develop a latex allergy while they are still young. While scientists are not one hundred percent sure of the exact cause, a likely reason is believed to be increased exposure to latex as a child in the form of medical equipment such as surgical gloves, intravenous fluid (IV) tubes, blood pressure cuffs and more. For this reason, many hospitals have begun to use non-latex equipment – especially gloves – to prevent this happening in infant patients.
Until recently, it was thought that allergies a person was born with were the only ones they would experience throughout the life. Recent studies showed that is equally possible that you might develop an allergy later in life. These are typically referred to as adult onset allergies. Latex is one of the allergies which has been documented in several studies to occur in previously non-allergic adults. Adults are most likely to develop additional in their 30s or 40s, but new allergies have been recorded in a few patients as old as 70.
It is possible for an adult-onset allergy to develop seemingly at random, without any apparent cause. However, scientists believe that people who regularly encounter the substance in their daily life, such as during the course of their job, are more likely to become allergic to it at some point in their life. The process of gradually becoming allergic to a substance to which you are regularly exposed is sometimes called allergic sensitization. In addition, if you already suffered from allergies as a child (including asthma or hayfever) you are more likely to develop more allergies as you grow up.
In the case of the latex allergy, several at-risk groups have been identified via international scientific studies. These include:
- Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, due to the time they must spend wearing latex gloves and handling other latex equipment
- Janitors, home cleaners, or employees of assisted living facilities, due again to regularly wearing latex gloves
- Sex workers and adult film actors, as a result of the latex found in condoms and dental dams
- Hairdressers, both because they wear gloves and because many hairnets and brush handles contain latex
- Tennis or badminton players, as the handles of their racquets usually feature a latex grip
- Balloon artists, circus employees, and some magicians, as the majority of commonly used balloons are made from latex
If you are a member of one of these groups, or if you are someone who regularly finds themselves in any of the above situations (such as a regular hospital patient or the spouse of one of these professions), it is possible that you may have developed a latex allergy. But how can you find out for sure? Read on to learn all about the next step!
Testing for the Latex Allergy
Luckily, medical science has developed a number of highly accurate methods of testing whether or not a person is allergic to any given substance. Many people receive a group of allergy tests, sometimes called an allergy panel, as an infant to determine their reaction to common allergens including but not limited to penicillin, peanuts, tree products, latex, and shellfish.
However, most people do not undergo any additional allergy tests later in life unless they begin having a specific reaction which indicts an allergy. It is definitely possible to schedule or requests a similar battery of allergy tests at any time. It may be recommended by your doctor to take these tests as you enter your 30s or 40s due to the increased risk of developing adult onset allergies during that particular decade.
If you think you are beginning to display symptoms of something that may be a latex allergy, talk to your doctor or visit an allergist to have a test performed. This should be carried out as soon as possible, as it is important to figure out whether latex is truly the cause and how severe your allergy and its symptoms are.
If it is possible, write down the symptoms you are experiencing, when you believe you were exposed to latex, and the circumstances of the exposure (what type of latex product it was, where on your body it came in contact, and for how long). This will aid your doctor in deciding the proper test to perform and, if you are diagnosed with a latex allergy, provide clues as to your particular body reacts to the allergen.
Doctors can typically test for a latex allergy in one of two ways:
- a localized skin test, in which a small, specifically marked portion of your skin is allowed to come into contact with latex and its reaction is observed over a period of several hours or days, or
- a blood test, in which a small amount of latex is exposed to a sample of your blood. This can either be done via skin prick while you are present in the doctor’s office or by sending your blood to a laboratory and having the results analyzed.
If you are determined to be allergic to latex, the next step is then to figure out the cause of your allergy (natural latex protein or synthetic latex chemical additives) and its severity so that appropriate preventative measures can be discussed or medicines prescribed. We already went over the causes of latex allergies in the previous section, so let’s move on to discussing the different severities in which they can occur.
How Bad is Your Latex Allergy?
Like many other allergies, a reaction to latex typically manifests itself as one of two reactions: the extremely severe anaphylaxis or the much more mild contact or irritant dermatitis. While neither is pleasant, the former represents significantly more dangerous health concerns and must be handled with extreme care.
Symptoms of Anaphylaxis
Anaphylaxis refers to a rapid, intense, extreme allergic reaction and is sometimes also called hypersensitivity. A reaction usually occurs when the allergen is either inhaled or otherwise comes into contact with any of the body’s mucus membranes (which include the eyes, nose, mouth/throat, anus and genitalia). Anaphylactic reactions are usually sudden and occur immediately after exposure to the allergen.
The symptoms of anaphylaxis are different in every single affected person, but typically mirror those of other serious illnesses such as asthma or influenza aka “the flu”. Some common symptoms include but are not limited to:
- swelling of the eyes, nose, ears or throat
- dizziness, light-headedness or shortness of breath
- nausea or vomiting
- runny nose
- hives or rash that covers large areas of the body
- wheezing, coughing or sneezing
If the symptoms are too severe, a victim’s body can quickly go into anaphylactic shock, in which it experiences shutdown and ceases to respond. If the symptoms are allowed to go untreated for too long, especially if the sufferer experiences swelling of the throat or difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis can be fatal.
Symptoms of Dermatitis
On the other hand, contact or irritant dermatitis triggers much less intense symptoms and is not fatal. However, it can be triggered by any skin-to-latex contact, and does not need to be inhaled or come in contact with a mucus membrane.
Symptoms of dermatitis also often do not appear immediately. They can manifest between 24 and 48 hours after exposure to latex. Most symptoms will resolve themselves on their own after a period of time – usually a few hours, but occasionally as long as 2-3 days. If your symptoms persist beyond a day without fading or decreasing in intensity, contact your doctor regarding recommended treatment.
As its name suggests, dermatitis usually manifests symptoms on your skin. They are usually limited to the areas of your body which came into direct contact with latex, although particularly severe outbreaks of dermatitis may spread further.
The most common symptoms of dermatitis include:
- rash localized to affected area of the body
- hard, rough or “scaly” patches of skin
- hives or red spots
- swelling, especially of fingers, nose, ears, or eyelids
Even if your allergy is of the contact dermatitis type, you may still experience some effects from inhaling latex particles. Products likely to cause this reaction are balloons and especially gloves. Most gloves are treated with a powder that makes them easier to put on and take off without the latex sticking to your skin, and when this powder travels into the air, it takes latex proteins and other small particles with it.
If you are a dermatitis sufferer and accidentally inhale latex particles, it is likely that you will experience asthma-like symptoms similar to but less severe than those caused by dermatitis.
- buildup of mucus (congestion) in the throat and nose
- runny nose
- coughing and sneezing
- wheezing breaths
- watery eyes
Similar to the above, these symptoms are likely to fade within a few hours but may last up to 24-48 hours, especially if the exposure to latex is prolonged or repeated over a period of time, such as during a stay at the hospital or an all-day birthday party.
Alright, you’re probably thinking, this seems pretty straightforward…Don’t tell me it gets any more complicated…
Unfortunately, it does.
But only slightly!
For the last topic in this article, it’s time to talk about something called…
Latex and Its Cross-Reactive Allergies
Earlier in this guide, we mentioned that people who already suffer from at least one allergy as children are more likely to develop additional allergies as an adult. This includes anything from asthma and hayfever to food, medical or chemical allergies – and, of course, it includes latex as well.
Once scientists had discovered the existence of adult onset allergies, the next step to figure out whether certain allergies were more likely to trigger others. Several studies were performed in which allergy sufferers of various ages were exposed to different allergens at different points in their lives to see what developed and when.
Of course, there were certain groups of similar allergens which were naturally connected to one another – for example, a peanut allergy sufferer who also reacted to cashews and almonds, or a child with a shellfish allergy growing into an adult who was allergic to all different types of fish. However, what these scientists also discovered is that some allergies with little or no connection to one another that nonetheless manifested together.
These seemingly random but related allergies are referred to as cross-reactive allergies. While it is not one hundred percent certain that if you are allergic to one you will also be allergic to the other, the odds are significantly increased that you will be. The first cross-reactive pairs of allergens scientists discovered were the pollen of the birch trees and lactose (found in milk, cheese and other dairy products). Other similarly random groupings include asthma and peanut allergies and dust mites and shellfish.
Of course, latex also has several other allergens with which it has been proven to be cross-reactive. In particular, it is cross-reactive with several tropical fruits, a number of different types of nuts, and even a few vegetables. The lists of common and slightly less common cross-reactions with latex are collected below.
To put it simply, if you are allergic to latex, you are also very likely to be allergic to one or all of the following:
You are also somewhat likely to be allergic to one or all of the following:
There is a slight chance that you may be allergic to one or all of the following:
If you have one of these allergies, you may wish to have yourself tested for a sensitivity to latex – and vice versa. Scientists estimate that about half of latex allergy sufferers will have a cross-reactive allergy from the list above, and similarly about half of those allergic to avocado, chestnut, kiwi or banana will also show a reaction to latex.
Food allergies can be tested by a doctor or allergist using either a blood test, as described in earlier sections of this article, or an oral sensitivity test, in which a small amount of the suspected allergen is exposed to the inside of your mouth.
Having one of the above allergies does not necessarily mean that you will also be allergic to latex. However, here at Laidtex, we believe in the philosophy of better safe than sorry – so we fully recommend having yourself tested just to be safe!
The information presented in this guide may seem overwhelming. Latex allergies are still relatively uncommon, but are increasing in frequency every year as latex becomes a larger and larger part of our daily lives. True, the symptoms are usually mild, but they can be severe – and even fatal.
However, living with a latex allergy is totally doable. Thousands of people do so every day, and successfully manage their lives without experiencing any major outbreaks of symptoms. Many of them even regularly purchase and use latex products by finding those which are specifically manufactured so as to be hypoallergenic.
If you have or think you might be at risk of developing a latex allergy, we strongly recommend that you read our follow-up article, Living With Latex Allergies, found here. In this article, we discuss Laidtex’s promise to sell goods which will be as safe as possible for those who are living with this allergy. After all, we believe that everybody deserves to look amazingly sexy in fashionable latex getup!