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The Latex Allergy Epidemic

During the past 15 years allergic reactions to latex have become a significant public health problem, particularly among health-care workers. Approximately 800,000 American adults and children have become allergic to natural rubber latex, found in gloves and pacifiers. When exposed to latex or latex dust, sensitized persons can develop hives, nasal and eye irritation, asthma, and anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition in which the breathing passageways swell closed. About 1% of the general public and 4.5% to 17% of health-care workers and others exposed to latex on their jobs have become sensitized. Some have even been forced to terminate their careers for this reason. Medical and dental procedures on sensitized individuals may be complicated by anaphylactic events, as may the use of latex pacifiers by infants. The FDA has received more than 2000 reports of injury and several reports of death associated with latex allergy. In 1996, the agency published regulations that would require all latex-containing gloves and other devices to be labeled accordingly, including warnings about possible allergic reactions.

Latex is a common component of disposable gloves, intravenous tubing, syringes, stethoscopes, catheters, dressings, bandages, and other medical supplies. Among health-care workers, gloves are the most significant source because they are frequently used, and the powder used to line some of them can absorb latex proteins and become airborne. Asthmatic reactions have occurred among people who did not use gloves but merely inhaled latex-containing dust. Thus, sensitive workers can be affected not only by their own gloves but also by those worn by co-workers.

The surge of latex allergy among health-care workers is primarily attributable to greater use of disposable gloves to prevent the spread of AIDS and hepatitis B. Increased demand and cost pressures for gloves has led some manufacturers to shorten the manufacturing time by reducing the number of washing and purifying steps, which increases the amount of sensitizing protein that the gloves will transmit.

The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology has published guidelines and recommends that people who have been diagnosed as allergic wear an identification card (or bracelet) and a self-injectable adrenalin device. Sensitive individuals should be sure that their health-care providers are aware of their condition so that they are not exposed to latex during medical procedures or surgery. A few states have introduced bills to ban the use of powdered latex gloves in medical facilities.

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This article was revised on January 22, 2000.