If you have a latex allergy, your skin or mucous membranes (eyes, mouth, nose, or other moist areas) react when latex touches them. A severe latex allergy can affect breathing and cause other serious problems.
Latex is made from the sap of rubber trees. It is very strong and stretchy. So it is used in a lot of medical equipment.
Hospital items that contain latex
Common hospital items that may contain latex include:
Surgical and exam gloves
Catheters and other tubing
Sticky tape or electrode pads that can be attached to your skin during an EKG
Blood pressure cuffs
Tourniquets (bands used to stop or slow blood flow)
Stethoscopes (used to listen to your heart beat and breathing)
Grips on crutches and crutch tips
Bed sheet protectors
Elastic bandages and wraps
Wheelchair tires and cushions
Other hospital items may also contain latex.
Are you at risk for a latex allergy?
Over time, frequent contact with latex increases the risk of a latex allergy. People in this group include:
People who have had multiple surgeries
People with conditions like spina bifida and urinary tract defects (tubing is often used to treat them)
Others who may become allergic to latex are people who are allergic to foods that have the same proteins that are in latex. These foods include bananas, avocado, and chestnuts.
Other foods that are less strongly linked with latex allergy include:
Latex allergy is diagnosed by how you have reacted to latex in the past. If you developed a rash or other symptoms after contact with latex, you are allergic to latex. Allergy skin testing can help diagnose a latex allergy.
A blood test can also be done. If you have latex allergens in your blood, you are allergic to latex. Allergens are substances your body makes to fight off something you are allergic to.
Signs and symptoms of latex allergies
You can have a reaction to latex if your skin, mucous membranes (eyes, mouth, or other moist areas), or bloodstream (during surgery) come into contact with latex. Breathing in the powder on latex gloves can also cause reactions.
Symptoms of latex allergy include:
Dry, itchy skin
Skin redness and swelling
Watery, itchy eyes
Wheezing or coughing
Signs of a severe allergic reaction often involve more than one body part. Some of the symptoms are:
Having a hard time breathing or swallowing
Dizziness or fainting
Vomiting, diarrhea, or stomach cramps
Pale or red skin
Symptoms of shock, such as shallow breathing, cold and clammy skin, or weakness
A severe allergic reaction is an emergency. You must be treated right away.
How to avoid exposure to latex in the hospital
If you have a latex allergy, avoid items that contain latex. Ask for equipment that is made with vinyl or silicone instead of latex. Other ways to avoid latex while you are in the hospital include asking for:
Equipment, such as stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs, to be covered, so that they do not touch your skin
A sign to be posted on your door and notes in your medical chart about your allergy to latex
Any latex gloves or other items that contain latex to be removed from your room
The pharmacy and dietary staff to be told about your latex allergy so they do not use latex when they prepare your medicines and food
Reddy S. Latex allergy guidelines. In: Pfenninger JL, Fowler GC, eds. Pfenninger & Fowler's Procedures for Primary Care. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2010: appendix C.
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.