Latex allergies reportedly affect approximately 1% of the general population. This number is significantly higher (between 3 and 18 percent by some reports) in health care workers, presumably due to their repeated exposure to latex. Since the introduction of standard precautions, the use of latex gloves has generally increased and may well be the primary cause in sensitizing an increasing number of health care workers. Cornstarch powders, often used as a lubricant in latex gloves, may accelerate this process by acting as a carrier for the latex protein antigens. Other populations, which may be similarly affected are patients with spina bifida, patients with congenital genitourinary abnormalities, rubber industry workers, atopic individuals and patients who have undergone multiple operative procedures.

There are three distinct reactions to latex - See"Guide to the Reactions to Natural Rubber Latex." The most common is an irritant contact dermatitis. This reaction is most likely due to the chemicals used in producing latex gloves as opposed to the latex itself. It may be aggravated by soaps and other cleansers used in the work place as well as by repeated hand washing and incomplete drying. The manisfestations of this reaction is usually reddened, dry, cracked skin most often on the hands. Avoidance of latex gloves and other irritants is frequently the only necessary treatment. Individuals with latex allergies may have related food allergies.

A type IV hypersensitivity reaction is the most common true natural latex allergy -- See Allergic Contact Dermatitis, Latex Sensitivity Education Handout. These reactions are often delayed occurring 24 to 48 hours after exposure. Symptoms may be difficult to distinguish from an irritant reaction, described above, but may include a red itchy rash and blistering. This is a local reaction and only involves those areas, which have come in contact with latex or the powder from the latex gloves. These are not systemic reactions.

Type I hypersensitivity is more immediate, more serious and systemic -- See Allergic Contact Dermatitis, Latex Sensitivity Education Handout. Symptoms may begin within minutes to hours after contact with latex or its powder. They may range from itching eyes, urticaria to wheezing and anaphylaxis. The utmost caution must be employed when using latex in the work place with these individuals.

If you believe you have any of the above reactions, you should contact Employee Health Services at 734-3572 to get enrolled in our surveillance program. Those with suspected Type I reactions will be given an appointment for further evaluation. See Latex Surveillance Questionnaire