Natural rubber latex (NRL) has emerged over the last decade as an increasingly common trigger for anaphylaxis-producing allergies. It is found in a wide range of manufactured goods, including an estimated 40,000 common household items. Latex allergies now affect an estimated 1% to 6% of the U.S. population and the reasons for the increase in incidence can be attributed to biohazard precautions and manufacturing changes.1-3
Latex allergy is an allergic sensitivity to the proteins in NRL that often worsens with each exposure, a phenomenon known as allergic sensitization. Allergic reactions to latex can range from moderate skin irritations to life-threatening anaphylaxis.
You may be interested in learning more about latex allergies including information on variations in severity, who is at risk, and prevention and treatment.
Reasons for Increased Incidence
Prior to the 1980s, reactions to latex were virtually unknown in the United States. Now, recent estimates put the incidence of latex sensitivity or allergy among the general U.S. population at between 1% and 6%, or up to 16 million people.1-3
Reasons for the increase in latex allergy incidence include:
It is commonly acknowledged that the sudden, large-scale increase in latex glove use by health care workers since the 1980s lies at the heart of the growing problem of latex allergy. As health care workers sought to protect themselves from AIDS and other blood-borne diseases, latex glove use became virtually universal in hospitals and other medical and dental facilities. Patients, and especially health care workers, were exposed to more latex than ever before and many have become sensitized to it.
To keep up with increased demand, manufacturers sped up their processes and resorted to lower quality latex, both of which have resulted in latex products with higher levels of the protein that can trigger allergic reactions.
Latex allergy is an allergic sensitivity to the proteins in natural rubber latex (NRL) that often worsens with each exposure and at its most severe can result in deadly anaphylaxis. Unlike synthetic latex, which rarely causes allergic reactions, NRL comes from the milky sap of rubber trees. Using various processing techniques, NRL is used alone or in combination with other materials to make thousands of products including:
Hospital and dental equipment
Dipped latex products are the biggest culprits in triggering allergic reactions, including:
Sensitization occurs when exposure to latex proteins causes the body's immune system to develop antibodies to these proteins. Because the body perceives the latex protein as a threatening foreign substance, it prepares to launch a defense against it in future encounters using the antibodies it has created. Therefore, people may have been sensitized to latex without yet showing external allergic symptoms. They are, however, at risk of becoming increasingly sensitized and eventually symptomatic if exposure to latex continues.
Sensitization refers to an increasingly strong allergic reaction to the same amount of allergen over time.
Antibodies are proteins that help the body to identify specific foreign invaders to the body, such as latex and other allergens.
Reactions to Latex
Because latex can cause local skin irritation, or dermatitis, as well as more severe allergic reactions, it is important to distinguish between these so that symptoms of potentially fatal allergic reactions are recognized and treated, and proper precautions against future reactions are taken.
Two types of skin irritations, or dermatitis, are common among frequent users of latex products, particularly glove-wearing health care workers:
Raw, inflamed, even blistered skin that can also be caused by frequent hand washing, wearing nonbreathable gloves, and exposure to irritating chemicals.
Allergic-contact dermatitis (delayed hypersensitivity)
Allergic reactions that result in a delayed skin rash is similar to that caused by poison ivy. In contrast to systemic latex allergy, antibodies are not involved to cause an immediate allergic reaction. Because these reactions may be caused by the chemicals used in producing latex rather than by the latex itself, changing to a different brand of latex products that uses different processing chemicals may clear up the reaction.
While annoying, dermatitis reactions are not dangerous per se, nor necessarily directly related to latex. There can, however, be progression from dermatitis to latex allergy. Severe skin irritation can make a person more susceptible to developing an allergic hypersensitivity to latex because the skin no longer protects more sensitive internal tissues of the body, which are more vulnerable to sensitization.
Latex allergy (immediate hypersensitivity)
True latex allergy occurs when the body's immune system becomes sensitized to latex proteins, usually over the course of repeated exposure. As a result of sensitization, the immune system overreacts to latex as a hostile intruder.
Allergic symptoms range from irritating to life threatening, becoming progressively worse with repeated exposure. Allergic symptoms include the following, and may occur singly or in combination:
Itchy rashes, hives
Nasal congestion (rhinitis)
Swelling, especially around the nose, mouth, and throat
Eye irritation or conjunctivitis
Respiratory problems, including asthma and rhinoconjunctivitis
Full-blown anaphylaxis, which can include any of the above, can cause death through suffocation or a severe drop in blood pressure.
Asthma is a condition in which the airways narrow due to an allergic hypersensitivity.
Rhinoconjunctivitis is an allergic condition common in children during the pollen season that is characterized by sneezing, runny nose, and nasal congestion.
Since it's impossible to predict when an allergic reaction might escalate into deadly anaphylaxis, and because it can take only minutes to do so, it's important to take even seemingly mild allergic reactions seriously. Thus, those who have experienced allergic symptoms in response to latex should avoid further contact with it and consult their physicians about carrying self-injectable epinephrine with them for anaphylactic emergencies.
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