10 myths about latex allergy
"This article was originally published in the Wound Care newsletter, January 1999."
Misconceptions about latex allergy are rampant, and often, even experienced health
care professionals don't know the basics, according to Gail Pisarcik Lenehan, RN,
EdD, CS, a Boston-based emergency nurse and editor of the Journal of Emergency
Nursing. The following are some myths about latex allergy:
1 Synthetic gloves aren't as safe. People equate latex with protection, but many
synthetics are said to offer equal or superior barrier protection against viruses.
If latex is used, most experts agree that it should be low-allergen, powder-free
latex. Lenehan suggests using synthetic gloves with the appropriate barrier
protection for a particular task.
2 You won't become allergic if you stop wearing latex gloves. Latex proteins can be
aerosolized and inhaled, which causes sensitization as well as allergic reactions.
Too many clinicians think avoiding latex gloves will make them safe, and very few
people know about the danger of becoming sensitized when those around them wear
3 If you've worn gloves for years with no problems, you don't have to worry.
Many health care professionals say, "I've been wearing gloves for 10 years, and
they haven't bothered me yet, so I'm sure they're not going to." But it's a
cumulative process, according to Lenehan. In reality, the longer you've worn
latex gloves, the more likely it is that you may develop a problem.
4 If you have only slight itchiness from wearing latex gloves, it means you're not
seriously allergic. The majority of people will not progress beyond a hand rash,
but the most insidious aspect of latex allergy is its progressive nature. Once
someone has a severe reaction to latex - either latex-induced severe asthma or
anaphylaxis - each systemic reaction will come with less provocation, and each
will be worse, which is exactly the case with an allergy to a substance such as
penicillin, says Lenehan.
5 Wearing synthetic gloves over latex gloves will protect you.Realize that the
aerosolized latex can be dangerous. Nurses, says Lenehan, will put latex gloves over
synthetic gloves, thinking they're protected, but they're still breathing in latex.
6 You can become allergic to synthetic gloves. While an allergy might be theoretically
possible, it's usually the chemicals that cause contact dermatitis, and there
have been no reports of serious reactions, according to Lenehan. Synthetic gloves
can irritate you, but they don't seem to cause systemic serious anaphylaxis or
asthmatic reactions like the proteins in latex.
7 If a reaction occurs, you should treat the symptoms.It's dangerous to conceal
symptoms of latex allergy while the condition is progressing. Even experienced
nurses have put steroid cream around their eyes or hands, says Lenehan.
The practice is unwise because it only masks symptoms while sensitization could
be progressing or even hastened by the creams.
8 Latex allergy only affects certain populations. There is no evidence supporting that
assertion. No one sub-population is intrinsically more susceptible than any other to
latex allergy. The literature reveals that it's often a case of how much someone has
been exposed to latex and how invasive the contact was. You're at more risk if you
have a history of other allergies or eczema, but exposure is key. There are high-risk
populations, such as spine bifida patients, but what makes them high risk is the fact
that they've been exposed to latex during multiple operative procedures, with latex
catheters coming in contact with mucosal tissue.
9 It's too expensive to switch to non-latex gloves. Administrators may balk at
switching to non-latex gloves, but there are ways to reduce the cost. A hospital might be
buying dozens of different types of gloves, says Lenehan. If you consolidate with one
synthetic, universal exam glove, you can save money because of an economy of scale.
There are a plethora of new latex-free supplies being offered by manufacturers in
response to increasing demand. Almost every product made of latex is either already
being made out of a synthetic, or an alternative is being explored, says Lenehan.
10. Latex allergy isn't as serious as other allergies. People instantly appreciate how
dangerous a penicillin allergy can be, but they don't realize there is the same potential
for a lethal anaphylaxis with latex, notes Lenehan.
As a result, facilities continue to put their staffs at risk. Having a latex-free cart
is important, but it won't make a difference if there is powdered latex in the air,
Lenehan stresses, who adds that she wouldn't treat someone with an allergic reaction to
penicillin where aerosolized penicillin is in the air.