Prather Pediatric and Allergy Center - Ask Doctor Brent

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Title: Latex Allergy - A New Danger

Category: Asthma and Allergy


At least 1,000 cases of latex allergic reactions have been reported in the past few years to the FDA. There have been at least 15 fatalities. The initial reports were mainly from sensitized patients reacting to barium enemas. Also pediatric patients with spina bifida or congenital urologic abnormalities reacting during surgery to the latex on the surgeon's gloves. Now that there is an awareness of latex allergies, new cases are reported monthly. Many health care workers are becoming sensitized due to chronic exposure to latex in their jobs, particularly operating room employees. One study demonstrated a greater than 7% sensitivity among physicians and about 6% among nurses. Another study in France demonstrated a greater than 10% instance of latex allergy among nurses.

Latex allergy can manifest itself as a rash, similar to poison ivy. This is called a contact dermatitis rash and occurs usually 48 hours after exposure to the latex. A second reaction might be hives. This is called a contact urticaria syndrome or CUS. It occurs about 30 to 60 minutes after contact. The third and most scary reaction is a systemic allergic reaction. Systemic means total body and these type reactions include hives all over the body, itching, possibly asthma and inflammation of the nose and eyes. In extreme cases there may be full-blown anaphylaxis with shock and respiratory failure. Fortunately, these systemic reactions are rare, but new cases are being reported now that a greater awareness is present.

At a recent study at a Milwaukee medical clinic, 16 of 19 patients treated for systemic reactions reported having had previous contact dermatitis reactions or contact urticaria. These rashes triggered by latex should be a warning of potential progression to a full blown systemic reaction for any patient or health care worker. If one is sensitive to latex, then try in all possible ways to avoid any contact with latex and in the case of health care workers, use non-latex type gloves. This is critical since we see much more glove use for all medical procedures than we have in the past due to AIDS.

Some confusion occurs in studying latex allergy because many of the other chemicals and biological residues associated with latex can also produce allergic reactions. These include cornstarch, sterilizing chemicals, endotoxins present in the rubber, and other chemicals such as thiorams and antioxidants used in the curing of the rubber. If a tentative diagnosis of latex allergy is made, seek out a physician with knowledge of latex allergy for further testing, treatment and advice. The American College of Allergy and Immunology task force on latex hypersensitivity is continuing to study this potentially serious problem and is working with the Health Industry Manufacturers Association to carry on multi-site studies.