Latex allergy

Latex (natural rubber) has been used to make medical gloves and other commonly used products for over 100 years. Latex allergy was first recognised in the general population in the late 1970’s.

Since that time, it has become a major health issue. People who have intense and long term exposure to latex gloves or medical products which contain latex, especially from early in life, are at very high risk.

People with spina bifida are therefore at the highest risk of developing latex allergy, yet many are unaware of the risks.

Commonly used medical products that may contain latex

Blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes, disposable gloves, oral and nasal airways, endotracheal tubes, tourniquets, intravenous tubing, syringes, electrode pads, surgical masks, protective eye wear (goggles), some catheters, injection ports, rubber tops of multidose vials, wound drains.

Household products that may contain latex

Rubberbands, pencil erasers (rubbers), wheelchair tires or handle grips, bicycle hand grips, carpeting, shoe soles, expandable fabric (elastic) on waistbands, hot water bottles, condoms, diaphragms (Dutch Cap), balloons, baby dummies and baby bottle teats.

This is not a complete list - hundreds of products may contain latex, though some are available in latex free forms.

What is latex?

Latex is a milky fluid that comes from the tropical rubber tree (hevea brasiliensis).

Several chemicals are added to the fluid during processing and manufacturing of commercial latex.

Proteins in natural latex (not synthetic) are an allergen in people with significant long-term exposure, but how much exposure is unknown.

Long-term or cumulative exposure is seen in people who undergo repeated surgeries or medical procedures from early in life.

In spina bifida, neurosurgery or bladder and bowel programs, diagnostic tests, and medical examinations are the main reasons for the intense and constant exposure which leads to increased sensitivity to latex.

What is an allergy?

An allergy is an abnormal, acquired sensitivity to a foreign substance which causes the immune system to mount a misguided reaction to that substance whenever it comes into contact with it.

The immune system is the body’s defence against invaders.

Symptoms of latex allergy

When the immune system detects latex proteins, a range of reactions can start within minutes or hours.

Symptoms of latex allergy (immediate hypersensitivity) may be mild or severe.

Mild reactions include:

skin rashes, hives, flushing, itching, nasal, eye or sinus symptoms.

Mild reactions may progress quickly and unpredictably to a severe reaction.

Symptoms of severe reactions include:

coughing, wheezing, bronchospasms (asthma), or life threatening anaphylaxis and shock.

Anaphylaxis is characterised by hives, laryngeal edema, shortness of breath, tachycardia (very rapid heart rate) and bronchospasms (asthma).

It is rarely the first sign of latex allergy, but milder reactions often go unnoticed until a life threatening event occurs.

Reactions to certain foods, and especially: potatoes, tomatoes, bananas, avocados, kiwi, papaya, and chestnuts are also associated with latex allergy.

Diagnosing latex allergy

Latex allergy should be suspected in anyone who exhibits allergy symptoms after an exposure to natural rubber or implicated foods.

It should always be suspected in people with spina bifida. Since continued exposure could result in a serious reaction, anyone who experiences mild symptoms must be evaluated by a physician.

Diagnosis is made on the basis of the outcome of the medical history, which includes food allergies, physical examination, and blood and skin tests.

Treating latex allergy

The most effective way to prevent latex allergy is to avoid latex completely.

A primary step in avoidance is awareness.

Household and medical items that are made of latex (natural, not synthetic, rubber), should be removed from the home and medical environment.

If you suspect you are at risk of latex allergy or have had a reaction, inform all medical and other community professionals with whom you interact, so they can remove latex products from the environment.

Physicians and surgeons need to understand the importance of maintaining latex-free areas because latex proteins from latex gloves escape into the air and enter the body membranes through respiration.

Be prepared

If you have spina bifida and have had a mild or severe reaction to any latex product, or have food allergies, it is very important that you:

  • wear a medic-alert bracelet or necklace
  • carry an epi-pen (portable, injectable epinephrine)
  • carry non-sterile gloves
  • notify community professionals of your health risk
  • avoid any environment where you may come into contact (either directly or indirectly) with products containing latex.


George’s Story

15-year-old George (not his real name) has spina bifida. His mum tells the story:

"Over the years George has had problems with his bladder and bowels, and so far, has had five operations.

When George was about six years old, he came home from school one day and I noticed that his face started to swell, his nose disappeared and his eyes were like tiny slits.

I rushed him to our GP who wanted him to take medication daily (I think some sort of anti-histamine). The doctor said it was the worst case he had ever seen.

I gave him the medicine and as the weeks went by he recovered and no other attack followed.

From then on, about 2-3 times a year he would have swollen watery eyes, feel unwell and sometimes his face would swell, but never as badly as the first time.

We started to think of hay fever, but suspected a latex allergy when we bought him a latex mask at the seaside which George wore for only a short time before his face became red and swollen.

When George was about 14, after a dental examination, he came out in red blotches, swelling and blisters around and in his mouth.

The next visit, very soon after, was worse.

He then had the same symptoms but also could not breathe properly and had pains in his chest.

At this point I insisted that he was tested. He was diagnosed at hospital, with latex allergy Type 1. The skin prick test also showed a very small reaction to pollen.

Since then George has had another two reactions, once when he was visiting a friend in hospital and his eyes became very sore and watery, and more recently when he came home with sore, watery eyes, breathing problems and chest pains."


Need more help?

If you need to speak with one of Shine’s specialist advisers about spina bifida or hydrocephalus, call us on 01733 555988 or click here to email us.

Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. We aim to respond to all enquiries as quickly as possible!

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