People can become sensitized and develop allergic reactions to certain proteins in natural rubber latex, such as that used in gloves and other products. Symptoms include skin redness, hives, and itching; more severe respiratory symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, scratchy throat, and asthma; and, in rare cases, shock. Workers who get sick may only be in their 20s and 30s, at the height of their productive lives.
Latex allergy can disrupt careers that represent years of training and hard work. It may result in potentially serious health problems and force the affected person to adopt substantial lifestyle changes to avoid everyday products containing latex – everything from condoms to balloons and children’s toys.
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Workers in the health care industry (physicians, nurses, dentists, technicians, etc.) are at risk if they use natural latex gloves frequently. So are other workers if they use latex gloves (hairdressers, housekeepers, food service workers, etc.) and employees in industries that manufacture latex products.
At least 7.7 million people are employed in the growing health care industry. While there are no overall statistics on the prevalence of latex allergy in that work force, studies do indicate that 8 to 12% of health care workers regularly exposed are sensitized, compared with 1 to 6% of the general population.
Among groups of sensitized workers, the proportion of those with symptoms of latex allergy varies; one study of exposed hospital workers found that about half of those who became sensitized developed latex asthma.
Yes, there are ways to prevent exposure that may lead to sensitization and allergic reaction. Workers choose non-latex gloves when there is little chance they will come in contact with infectious materials (for example, in the food service industry). If latex gloves are chosen as appropriate protection when handling infectious materials, they should be reduced-protein, powder-free gloves.
The challenges to overcoming this problem are many. The number of workers at risk is large. Workers often are unaware of the risk of latex exposure. Well-accepted, standardized methods for measuring allergy-causing latex proteins are not available. No FDA-approved materials are available yet for use in skin testing for latex allergy. Occasionally, additional allergy tests may fail to confirm a true allergy to latex or tests may suggest latex allergy in a worker with no clinical symptoms.
- People can become sensitized and develop allergic reactions to certain proteins in natural rubber latex.
- Latex allergy is a serious concern for employers and workers in the growing health-care industry and in other key sectors (law enforcement, fire fighting, and service industries such as food preparation and hair care).
- Symptoms may progress from skin redness, hives, and itching; to more severe respiratory symptoms such as runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, scratchy throat, and asthma. In rare cases, latex allergies can result in shock.
- If latex allergy develops, avoiding contact with latex products is essential, but may be quite difficult.
- Non-latex gloves are the best choice for workers who do not deal with infectious materials. For handling infectious materials, reduced-protein powder-free gloves offer effective protection with decreased risk for latex allergy.
Susan, an emergency room nurse, has been developing a rash and sneezing spells while at work. She ignores the problem until one day at work, she is actually gasping for air. After being treated by her colleagues in the emergency room, Susan learns that she has a severe latex allergy that necessitates her having to quit. Even after leaving her job, she finds her family life severely circumscribed by the allergy. “I can’t go inside when I take my kids to the dentist’s office. When I go to a restaurant, I have to call ahead and see if they use latex gloves.”
- National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health: Occupational Latex Allergies, CDC
- The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Information Line (800) 356-4674
- ALERT (Allergy to Latex Education & Resource Team Inc.) (414) 677-9707