If you have a latex allergy, you’re allergic to a protein found in the sap of the Brazilian rubber tree. That might sound easy to avoid, but that sap is used to make rubber, and it’s found in lots of common products, including balloons, rubber bands, condoms, gloves and bandages.
A latex allergy reaction can be triggered by coming into contact with items that contain latex, or by breathing in latex fibers, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). (Latex paint contains synthetic latex, so it does not cause symptoms of a latex allergy.)
Not all reactions to latex stem from an allergy to latex. For example, even if you don’t have a latex allergy, your skin could still react to contact with rubber, said Dr. Jenny Murase, associate clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco, and a member of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Latex allergies were diagnosed more frequently in the 1980s and 1990s when latex gloves and products were used to protect against viruses. Today it’s less likely for products to contain latex, according to the AAFA.
Symptoms of a latex allergy
Different types of latex allergies cause different symptoms. A contact allergy causes a latex allergy rash when your skin touches latex. This rash usually appears one to two days after you come into contact with latex, and can spread to other parts of your body through touch.
Another type of latex allergy, called an immunoglobulin E, or IgE, antibody allergy, could trigger a dangerous allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, said Dr. Lawrence Schwartz, an advisor for the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America and chair of the division of rheumatology, allergy and immunology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
Anaphylaxis can come on quickly and often affects more than one part of the body. You might notice rashes; swelling in your lips, tongue, or throat; trouble breathing; dizziness; stomach pain or uterine cramps, according to the AAFA. Anaphylaxis can be deadly. About 80% of people who develop this type of latex allergy had latex contact allergies first, says the AAFA.
The AAFA, if you have symptoms of a latex allergy, you might notice itching or swelling in the area where your skin had contact with latex after:
- Blowing up a balloon
- Using a bandage
- Having a dental, vaginal or rectal exam
- Using a condom or diaphragm
If you have a latex allergy, you may also have a reaction to certain foods that contain proteins similar to those in rubber tree sap, so it’s important to pay attention if you notice symptoms of latex allergy after you’re exposed to foods known to be latex-reactive.
According to the AAFA, latex-reactive foods include:
Causes of a latex allergy
Latex allergies are caused when your immune system reacts as though latex is a harmful substance, according to the AAFA. Latex allergies aren’t very common. They affect less than 1% of people in the U.S., but people who are exposed to latex frequently are more likely to develop allergies.
Latex is found in gloves and in a lot of medical products, so healthcare workers and hair stylists who regularly use latex gloves and other latex products have higher-than-average rates of latex allergy. Children who need multiple surgeries are also more likely to develop latex allergies.
Diagnosing a latex allergy
Rashes and allergic reactions could be caused by exposure to lots of different substances. To diagnose a latex allergy, your doctor will ask about your history and examine you. If a latex allergy seems likely, a sample of your blood can be tested at a lab.
Repeated contact with latex can cause your reactions to be more severe, so it’s important to be diagnosed if you think you might be allergic to latex.
Treatment for a latex allergy
There’s no cure for latex allergies, so experts recommend avoiding coming into contact with latex. Keep in mind that products labeled as hypoallergenic could still contain latex.
You’ll also need to make sure you aren’t exposed to latex in a medical setting. “It is critical that latex allergy is placed in a patient’s medical record and that physicians, dentists and other healthcare workers are informed so that non-latex products are used,” Schwartz said.
For mild skin reactions to latex, anti-inflammatory drugs, such as NSAIDs like ibuprofen or aspirin, may provide some relief, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
If you have the type of latex allergy that can cause anaphylaxis, epinephrine can treat an allergic reaction. The AAFA recommends that you always have two epinephrine auto-injectors on hand. You should also make sure people who spend a lot of time with you know how to use them and can identify when you’re having an allergic reaction to latex.
CORRECTION (DEC. 22, 2020, 9:20 AM ET): A previous version of this article misattributed the information about anti-inflammatory drugs possibly providing some relief for mild cases of latex allergies to the AAFA. The correct attribution is the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.