How common is the issue of allergic reactions occurring due to the use of latex gloves? What can a healthcare professional do to reduce latex contact in the workplace? Here at MedTrainer, we can help you sort out how to handle this allergy and the compliance requirements associated with it. Latex allergy refers to a wide range of allergic reactions to substances contained in natural latex. Allergic reactions to any substance will appear when a person’s immune system reacts to nontoxic environmental situations or substances such as latex.
What is Latex?
Latex can be found in two forms: natural or synthetic. It’s a complex emulsion that, when in nature, is used by the plants that contain it as a defense against insects. Ah, but you’re not an insect. You’re a human, and the chances are that at some point in your life in the medical profession, you’ve found that rubber gloves are the primary source of allergic latex reactions. But it’s also used in over 400,000 products, from Band-Aids to blood pressure cuffs, catheters to dental dams, IV tubes, and ventilator tubing to other medical devices. If you have or have experienced allergic reactions to latex, you need to verify whether latex is contained in the items you’re in contact with and if you don’t know – talk to manufacturers.
One of the reasons why latex products, like gloves, cause allergic reactions is because of the chemical accelerators that are present in them. The purpose of these accelerators is to expedite the linkage of the rubber molecules in the latex to make it elastic and strong. However, because accelerators are sulfur-based, they are capable of causing harmful allergic reactions.
The Rise in Latex Allergy Cases
Beginning in the late 1980s, there appeared to have been a dramatic rise in latex allergy. Why? Latex gloves became the universal precaution for preventing infectious diseases from spreading, such as the AIDS virus or MERS. Exposures to latex and rubber products are common, and the result is that healthcare workers are more at risk for latex allergies. So, to answer our first question, how common is that allergy? Over 10% of healthcare workers have a latex allergy, with an average of 1% to 6% of the general population allergic as well. The bodies of these individuals identify latex as a pathogen and create an allergic response.
The immune system triggers the cells in the body to produce IgE – that’s immunoglobulin E. Those are antibodies designed to fight latex. When you come into contact with latex, the IgE antibodies signal the immune system to release chemicals, such as histamine, in the bloodstream. And what sort of a reaction does this cause? Well, the more a person is exposed to latex, the greater their immune system experiences sensitization. And the larger and more violent the reaction becomes with increased exposure. The powder used in surgical gloves is often an immune trigger since latex easily sticks to the powder. The gloves will often snap when put on or taken off, sending the powder into the air along with particulate latex contamination.
The Three Types of Allergic Reactions to Latex Gloves
Reactions include three different types of latex sensitivity. Here is an overview and explanation of the three different ways an individual might experience an allergic reaction to a latex product.
First: Irritant contact dermatitis: This is the least significant type of latex reaction and is basically a non-allergenic skin reaction. Repeated exposure to chemicals in latex gloves results in dryness, as well as skin itching, burning, scaling, and lesions. The reason why irritant contact dermatitis occurs is that the chemical damaging the skin harms it quicker than the body can heal it. After the latex glove chemicals reduce the oils in the wearer’s skin, they are able to induce inflammation in an individual.
Second: Allergic contact dermatitis: This is seen as a delayed reaction to additives used in latex processing, creating similar reactions as irritant contact dermatitis, but it is more severe. It usually spreads throughout the body and lasts for a longer time. Unlike irritant contact dermatitis, allergic contact dermatitis is caused by a particular allergen that the body of an individual is sensitive to, prompting an immune response against the allergen in response. The location of the skin that was exposed to the allergen, which would be the latex gloves, in this case, would be where the inflammation occurs.
Third: Immediate allergic reaction, also known as latex hypersensitivity: This is the most severe reaction to latex. Symptoms include rhinitis, conjunctivitis, cramps, hives, and extreme itching. Symptoms can also become more pronounced, resulting in tremors, chest pain, low blood pressure, anaphylactic shock, or if left untreated, death. While allergic contact dermatitis may not occur for several hours after exposure, immediate allergic reactions happen instantaneously. Those highly sensitive are more likely to suffer from latex hypersensitivity, but anyone’s immune response can worsen with repeated exposure to the allergen.
What to Do When You Have an Allergic Reaction to Gloves
While these allergic reactions to latex can range from skin redness and itching to more profound symptoms, allergic reactions to latex rarely become life-threatening conditions indicated by symptoms like low blood pressure, difficulty in breathing, or a rapid heart rate. Yet if they do progress into severity, emergency measures should be taken immediately. So, in short, latex allergies are no laughing matter. What can someone do if they’re allergic to latex? The simple answer is to avoid it altogether. Those who are extremely allergic to latex can have a reaction from clothes, shoes, elastic bands, condoms, pacifiers, baby-bottle nipples, even balloons, as well as the latex products used in the medical industry.
Ways that Allergic Reactions can Trigger
Type 1 allergic reactions to latex can even be triggered by airborne particles and may exhibit symptoms that include scaliness of the skin, burning, blistering, or oozing. Irritant contact dermatitis is the mildest and most common reaction, usually causing dry and itchy skin after using latex gloves. What if you don’t know if you’re at risk? Here’s the thing: for people who are genetically predisposed to latex allergy, the allergy may take a while to occur. Repeated exposure is what causes an allergy to develop, such as health care workers from nurses to dental hygienists and operating room staff. Also extremely susceptible: those with multiple surgical experiences, bone marrow cell defects, regular urinary catheter users – as many catheters have a rubber tip, spinal surgery patients, asthma or eczema sufferers, and those who are already allergic to plant foods.
Some individuals already allergic to latex may also be allergic to certain food items due to a so-called cross-reaction. This means that your immune system will produce the same allergy symptoms as it would when exposed to latex. A variety of foods are commonly associated with cross transactions, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains. Common allergens include tomatoes, chestnuts, wheat, and rye. If you’re allergic to any of these foods, you should tell your doctor. What happens if you suspect you may have an allergy to latex, but it hasn’t been positively determined? Your doctor may order an allergy patch test. This test will reveal if a patient is latex sensitive or sensitive to similar types of substances. It must be administered very carefully as patients can have a severe reaction to the test itself. Alternatively or in conjunction with a patch test, your doctor may ask for a blood test to determine allergies.
What is Eczema, and Why Does it Cause an Allergic Reaction to Gloves?
As mentioned previously, individuals who have been diagnosed with eczema are susceptible to having allergic reactions to the latex material in gloves. This common condition is a collection of several afflictions that create inflammation, rashes, and itchiness in the skin of those who suffer from it. Although the direct cause of eczema is unknown, it is not contagious and is likely due to both genetic and environmental factors.
There are several different types of eczema, including atopic dermatitis, dyshidrotic eczema, stasis dermatitis, and many others. Those who suffer from eczema will experience inflammation and itchiness in their skin when it is exposed to an allergen they are sensitive to, such as the materials in latex gloves. This sensitivity means that eczema sufferers must be cautious of more than just medical latex gloves but also certain kinds of soap.
Addressing Allergic Reactions to Gloves and Other Latex Products
Can latex allergies be cured, or at least treated? Unfortunately, there’s presently no way to prevent an allergic reaction to latex gloves. Should symptoms occur, allergic reactions are typically treated with the use of antihistamines, adrenaline, or steroids. But the best plan is to just avoid products with latex in them. Substances can be used as a substitute for latex, like neoprene or polymer agents. Yet, a recent Medical College of Wisconsin study noted that the best way to prevent sensitization to latex that leads to an allergic reaction is to simply stop using powdered latex gloves. If usage is eliminated, allergens in the air and air ducts are significantly reduced.
There are a variety of rubber gloves for eczema sufferers that won’t cause allergic reactions, so there is no need to rely on apparel made with latex. Look for reusable gloves made from a vinyl material or brands that incorporate cotton with allergen-free materials that don’t contain sulfur-based chemical accelerators. However, be certain to wash these varieties, and other rubber gloves for eczema sufferers, with soap and cleaning materials that will not induce any irritation.
While there is no legal requirement that forces manufacturers of products containing latex to state this component in their labeling, researching products will help prevent the use of latex. Choosing products created from natural rubber can result in dramatically decreased sensitization. But for those who are sensitized and come into contact with latex, sometimes replacing latex-coated products with products that aren’t coated can still cause a reaction. Some latex-free products are often manufactured in the same setting as products that contain latex, and small traces of latex can still be present. Let MedTrainer help you navigate the complex challenges of latex compliance, as latex allergy concerns continue to be an issue for the entire medical profession. For comprehensive healthcare safety plans spanning a wide range of issues affecting the workplace, contact us today!