Preventing Allergic Reactions to Natural Rubber Latex in the Workplace
9/4/2006 - Written by the Medical Exam Glove team
The following article takes references from DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 97-135. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of latex allergies within the workplace enviornment so workers understand the risks associated with latex exposure. In addition, education serves to help people understand the symptoms and know how to recognize whether they are victims of latex sensitivity.
The healthcare industry has been targeted to have the worst conditions for employees when looking at latex allergy risks. This is due to the prevalent use of latex material in commonly used devices like exam gloves, syringes, tubings, among other things.
Latex is composed of certain ingredients, the primary coming from the rubber trees. Latex is a milky liquid and as factories add chemicals into this liquid, the raw material can be used to make products like gloves and condoms. Latex is an organic compound and proteins can be found within the liquid. These proteins are responsible for the allergies and sensitivities reported due to latex. Allergic reactions cause the skin to become itchy and red, otherwise known as contact dermatitis. The more protein a glove has, the higher the risk users will develop sensitivity.
Since latex is versatile and cost effect, many industries have found uses for this material. In most cases, contact with latex products poses minimal risk; however, there are certain work place environments where the risks are considerably higher as seen in the health care facilities. Within hospitals, latex has been used to create a lot of equipment including but not limited to: gloves, syringes, pads, and tubing.
Hospital environments have been called out because the workers are typically in constant contact with latex. Sensitivity increase over prolonged exposure and allergies get worse with the prevalence of latex. Luckily, awareness of latex concerns have risen considerably enough for facilities to consider going latex-free.
Types of Reactions to Latex
There are couple of reactions people have to latex of those who are sensitive. Irritant contact dermatitis and latex allergies are the primary concerns.
Irritant contact dermatitis will cause the skin to tear, become red, and itch making it quite painful. Irritant contact dermatitis is a sign that the skin is not healthy and should be treated with medicated lotion. Latex gloves are known to be a common culprit to causing irritant contact dermatitis. Often times, once the victim stops using latex gloves, the contact dermatitis condition subsides.
Latex allergies cause asthmatic conditions that make it quite difficult for patients to breath. Often times, heavy breathing occurs in addition to wheezing. Latex allergies are quite serious as it affects the respiratory system. Extreme reactions to people with latex allergies can cause shock an in some cases death.
Levels and Routes of Exposure
Powdered latex gloves should be avoided because latex proteins can bind to the powder. As workers don latex gloves, the powder can be dispersed into the air making exposure to latex more severe. If the body cavity comes into contact with latex, the symptoms can be quite serious compared to skin contact.
Today, powder-free gloves dominate the market. Economies of scale has allowed production of powder-free gloves possible thereby making powdered gloves obsolete. Powdered versions provide no clinical benefit and is recommended not to be used.
Who is at Risk?
Everyone is at risk of developing a reaction to latex contact. However, the healthcare community is at the greatest risk as their exposure is constant. Doctors and nurses are at high risk, especially if their hospital use latex examination gloves. Since nurses can don at least a hundred pair of gloves in a given week, you can imagine how disconcerning this is. If you do not work in a hospital, it does not necessarily mean you are safe. It all depends on your enviornment so be aware of what's around you at all times.
Diagnosing Latex Allergy
There are common symptoms of people who are allergic to latex. These symptoms are contact dermatitis and asthmatic conditions. In addition, people can experience rashes, go into shock, or even possibly die. The severity of the symptom will be due to the level of sensitivity the individual has.
Everyone has a different protection level to latex and many will live life without ever showing symptoms of sensitivity. Those who are more susceptible will have to be cautious because once your protection wears off, you are at risk of experiencing the symptoms. If you are concerned with having latex sensitivity, you should consult a doctor immediately to determine the validity. It is important to include any sensitivity to latex in medical files because there are special procedures set to protect patients.
Itching and redness of skin is treatable and in most cases, discontinuing the use of latex products will solve your problem. With the added benefit of lotions, contact dermatitis can be easily avoided.
Treating Latex Allergy
If anyone is allergic to latex, they do not have to worry about having to completely change lifestyle. The only change needed is to take extra precaution to minimize exposure to latex. Symptoms are treatable and individuals can work their physicians to plan best course of action to attack this allergy. The important thing is to communicate any concerns to your doctor and heed their advice.
How Common is Latex Allergies?
There are mixed reports on what percentage of the population has latex sensitivity. 6% of the population is noted to have some form of latex sensitivity while medical professionals have double the rate. Some analysts remain skeptical on this exact percentage claiming the numbers are higher due to the lack of reporting. Although latex sensitivity awareness has increased within the healthcare community, the same level awareness does not exist within the public.
It is important to note that there are differences in how latex gloves are manufactured. Different factories maintain separate formulations. In the end, this means there will be manufacturers that make quality gloves with less harsh chemicals and minimal proteins while others may choose to save money. Special care should be given in ordering from a reputable provider with a known brand.
Today, you can find many reports of incidents where victims have suffered from latex allergies. Symptoms vary, but in many cases have been serious. Since latex allergies have been linked in some instances to death, hospitals have been taking preemptive measures to protect future patients from such dangers.
In numerous case studies, studies blame latex allergies to cause respiratory issues like asthma among patients. Within these studies, patients were viewed on what symptoms they had while using latex gloves and were compared to what symptoms existed when the patients did not work for a prolonged period. The results are pretty amazing. Studies reveal that after not handling latex gloves, the patients no longer had asthmatic symptoms of wheezing and itching went away. However, on the first day the patients returned to work and wore the latex gloves, symptoms returned.
Infection control practitioners will have numerous reports of symptoms due to latex sensitivity and the conclusion leads to one thing: avoid it.
Employers should be extremely concerned for their employee’s safety if the work place environment has a lot of latex material. Since sensitivity can rise over prolonged exposure, companies should work to minimize the presence of latex products by finding suitable substitutes.
If latex exposure is a concern within at work, there are several preemptive actions you should take to protect yourself. First, find out if anyone is allergic or sensitive to latex. Everyone must be warned about the dangers of latex and victims must have full disclosure what products contain latex.
Within a hospital environment, the staff should protect any latex sensitive patients by placing them in a latex-free environment. This will avoid any mishaps with the staff as everyone will know which patients are at risk to latex allergies. Hospitals should take preemptive measures to find substitutes to latex products. For example, instead of using latex examination gloves, hospitals should consider switching to nitrile gloves which are known to be latex-free. If cost is a concern, vinyl synthetic exam gloves are known to provide great protection.
For additional information on how latex sensitivity can affect work place enviornments, check out the following pages for more resources:
Principal contributors to the article include nurses and doctors from various institutions. If there are concerns with allergic reactions within a workplace, contact your occupational safety and health department. In addition, infection control departments will assist in controlling situations. Special thanks goes to NIOH for providing in-depth research material we can reference.