Latex allergies

What is natural rubber latex?

Natural rubber latex (NRL) is a milky fluid obtained from the Hevea brasiliensis tree, which is widely grown in South East Asia, and other countries. NRL is an integral part of thousands of everyday consumer and healthcare items.

As with many other natural products, natural rubber latex contains proteins to which some individuals may develop an allergy.

Latex allergies

Natural rubber latex (NRL) proteins have the potential to cause asthma and dermatitis. More serious allergic reactions, such as anaphylaxis, are also possible.

The proteins naturally present in NRL cause the allergies either through direct contact with the skin, or by inhalation of powder from powdered latex gloves

What is the cause of Natural Rubber Latex Allergy?

The introduction of Universal Precautions in the late 1980s mandated that healthcare workers protect themselves against the risk of cross-infection from blood-borne pathogens, such as HIV and Hepatitis B. This demand led to an unprecedented demand for latex gloves, which was met by changes in some manufacturers' practice (ie, high-protein [allergen] examination gloves coming onto the market place), and is believed to be the primary cause of the increased number of healthcare workers with NRL allergy. At the same time, there has been an unrelated and dramatic rise in incidence of atopic allergic disease in the past 30 years, which is also thought to be a major factor.

Who is most at risk?

Those most at risk from NRL are:

  • individuals exposed to NRL on a regular basis in occupations where single-use gloves are frequently usedĀ eg, workers in the car mechanics, catering, hairdressingĀ and electronics trades;
  • individuals undergoing multiple surgical procedures (some studies have reported that up to 65% of Spina Bifida children are sensitised to NRL);
  • individuals with a history of certain food allergies, such as banana, avocado, kiwi and chestnut;
  • individuals with atopic allergic disease (estimated at some 30 - 40% of the UK population); and
  • individuals exposed to NRL on a regular basis eg, workers in the car mechanics, catering and electronics trades

Around 1-6 per cent of the general population is thought to be potentially sensitised to NRL, although not all sensitised individuals develop symptoms.

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Updated 2021-05-04