The Facts about Latex Allergies: Understanding who might be affected

by Jeremy Copeland

It seems everyone is allergic to something — animals, pollen, and certain foods. But some people are allergic to a product that we use and depend on
everyday — natural latex rubber.

Natural latex rubber is found in medical products and equipment, such as dental supplies, syringes, catheters, stethoscopes, hemodialysis equipment, and ventilator equipment, and in common household products such as pacifiers, baby bottle nipples, balloons, pencil erasers, automobile tires, and carpeting. "Latex" usually refers to either the sap of the Brazilian rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) or to products made from the sap. The British were the first to discover latex during the mid-eighteenth century, and it was introduced to medical equipment in the late 1800s.

What Is a Latex Allergy?

A latex allergy is a sensitivity to natural latex rubber products. Specifically, it is an allergy to the proteins from the rubber tree that remain present in products made from natural latex after processing. Recent research shows that from 1 to 6 percent of the general population is sensitive to latex and as many as 12 percent of regularly exposed health care workers.

Who is affected?
Latex allergies commonly affect:

  • atopic people, or those who have multiple allergies.
  • children with spina bifida, urogenital abnormalities, or spinal cord injuries.
  • people who have undergone multiple operations.
  • health care workers who frequently use and are around latex products and devices.
  • people with allergies to certain foods, such as potatoes, bananas, chestnuts, avocados, and tomatoes.
  • housecleaning and janitorial personnel and food service workers.
  • people with allergic conditions such as eczema, hay fever, or asthma.

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of latex allergies can range from mild to severe and sometimes may even be life-threatening. Mild symptoms include reactions similar to those of poison ivy, for example, scratching of the hands and arms or areas that have had direct contact with the latex product; these symptoms may progress to skin blisters and spread to other areas of the body. More severe reactions include itchy, watery eyes; swelling of lips, tongue, or face; breathlessness; dizziness; and nausea. Rarely a person may go into anaphylactic shock, which if not treated, can lead to death; however, this reaction is seldom the first sign of a latex allergy.

Implications for Camps

Camps will need to deal with latex allergies on a case-by-case basis. Information may need to be added to staff training to increase awareness of latex allergies and the complications. In particular, special needs camps that serve populations, such as campers with spina bifida and asthma, may need to train activity staff and counselors on latex allergies and how to work with campers who have this allergy.

Camp directors and the camp health care staff will need to be up to date on staff members’ and campers’ health histories. Those responsible for first-aid care will also need to know if a camper or staff member is sensitive to latex and have an alternate plan of action in place.

Camp might also consider using alternatives to latex gloves such as latex-free gloves or vinyl gloves. This option is especially useful for food service staff where there is little risk of contact with potentially infectious materials.

Eliminating the use of latex products is difficult due to the high number of products that contain this natural substance. The best method of controlling latex allergies is avoidance. Identify those people who have an allergy to latex and attempt to keep these problem-causing products away from them.

 

Originally published in the 1999 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.

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