How to manage a latex allergy
Sarah Leggatt is a freelance health and medical writer whose teenage son has allergies to multiple foods and latex.
Some allergies seem to slip beneath the radar — latex allergy is a case in point. It is one of the lesser known allergies. Yet it can be life-threatening, and poses many challenges for those affected.
Avoiding natural rubber latex (NRL) isn’t easy. It crops up in all sorts of products and places that you wouldn’t expect. What’s more, it’s not always labelled, making it hard to spot. NRL comes from the milky sap of the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis. It is used to make many everyday items — gloves, rubber bands, erasers and balloons — as well as medical and dental equipment.
Latex allergy is less common now than it was in the 1990s, when hospitals used high-protein latex gloves. These caused reactions in many healthcare workers. Hospitals no longer use these gloves, and latex allergy is not as prevalent as it once was. Latex-free alternatives are also now widely available.
Who is at risk?
Latex allergy can affect children as well as adults. People are at higher risk if they have:
Symptoms of latex allergy
Type 1 latex allergy is an immediate, IgE-mediated reaction to NRL proteins. Mild symptoms include hives, rash, and swelling and itching of the skin. More serious symptoms — wheezing, difficulty breathing, dizziness or swelling of the throat — are signs of anaphylaxis and are potentially life-threatening. Reactions occur mainly through skin contact, although latex can become airborne and cause reactions when inhaled. Allergists usually diagnose Type 1 allergy using skin prick tests, blood tests and, sometimes, a latex challenge in hospital.
Type 4 latex allergy is a delayed, cell-mediated reaction to the chemicals in latex manufacturing. Skin itching and rashes may occur several days after contact. This form of latex allergy is a type of allergic contact dermatitis and is not life-threatening. Dermatologists usually diagnose Type 4 latex allergy with skin patch testing.
Antihistamine medicines and steroid creams are used to treat mild to moderate reactions to latex. Severe reactions need prompt administration of adrenaline, an ambulance and emergency medical treatment.
What products contain latex?
Here are just some of the hundreds of products which may contain latex.
Living with latex allergy
Most importantly, people with latex allergy must strictly avoid contact with NRL. This is especially if they have Type 1 allergy, the more serious kind. It’s safest to avoid any products which look like rubber, unless they are confirmed as latex-free. Contact the manufacturers to make sure.
Stretchy products — balloons, elastic bands, condoms and latex gloves — have more protein. These are more likely to cause an allergic reaction than solid products made of dry rubber latex, such as car tyres.
The good news is that many latex-free alternatives are available.
Emergency medical kit
People with Type 1 latex allergy should always carry two adrenaline auto-injectors (AAIs), and should be trained in how and when to use them. Their emergency medical kit should include:
Keeping asthma under good control is important. Always take inhalers and medicines as prescribed. Poorly controlled asthma may increase the risk of a severe reaction.
People with latex allergy are at risk of a reaction in healthcare settings. All healthcare staff need to know if someone has an allergy to latex. Dental, GP and hospital records should clearly flag up the allergy, so that staff know to take latex-free precautions.
Medical alert ID
People with latex allergy should always wear medical ID. This lets medical staff know of the allergy in an emergency situation. MedicAlert does a range of ID for adults and children.
Some people with latex allergy may cross-react to certain foods with similar proteins to latex. Symptoms may include tingling, swelling and itching of the mouth. Not everyone with latex allergy has a problem eating these foods. A doctor can advise on this.
Balloons are a nightmare for anyone with latex allergy. Birthday parties can be a real problem, especially for children. Always check with the party host. Other places to be careful are the fairground and shops with balloon displays. Foil balloons are a safe alternative.
NRL can be a daily workplace hazard. This is especially so in healthcare, social care and catering settings, where latex gloves are often used.
People with latex allergy should tell their employer and occupational health department. This means employers can then take steps to protect them, and make sure first aiders have anaphylaxis training.
Employers have a legal duty to consider reasonable changes to make sure an employee with latex allergy can do their job safely — for example, switching to latex-free gloves.
Sometimes, if the risk to health is too great, employers may not always be able to accommodate an employee’s needs. For advice on employment issues, seek help from your GP, allergist, occupational health department, trade union or ACAS.
Schools and nurseries
Schools in the UK have a duty of care to all students.
The head teacher — or the director or manager in a nursery/preschool — has overall responsibility for the safety of children. They should make sure a policy is in place to minimise the risks to children with severe allergies, including latex. A member of trained staff — a school nurse, first aider or team leader — should act as a lead to make sure the policy is implemented.
Measures should include individual healthcare plans and anaphylaxis training for staff.
Schools and nurseries may be less used to dealing with latex allergy than food allergies, and need extra support from parents. It helps to speak directly with staff.
Tips for parents
Anyone else caring for a latex-allergic child needs to know how to avoid latex, and be trained in how and when to use AAIs. This includes childminders, babysitters, nannies, friends and family members.
Teaching children to cope
It’s hard enough for adults to manage latex allergy. Imagine the problems for a child.
How parents navigate these depends on their child’s age. Younger children need close supervision and parents to advocate for them. Older children need to develop skills to manage their own latex allergy.
Parents should show their child how to recognise and avoid latex products — and encourage them to self-advocate by teaching them to ask questions and raise concerns.
With support, children can learn to confidently manage their allergy as they make the transition to independence.
Sadly there is no cure for latex allergy, but a proactive approach and the right precautions can help lessen the impact to daily life.
The Latex Allergy Support Group merged with the Anaphylaxis Campaign in 2015. For help and support, contact the Anaphylaxis Campaign’s national helpline, which is available from Monday to Friday between 9am-5pam – 01252 542029 or email them.
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