Latex Lurks in Unexpected Places

A New Epidemic

The rise in latex allergies, awareness and research began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, around the same time as awareness of the AIDS epidemic. Many in the health, food and other public service industries began to snap on latex gloves to protect themselves from the HIV virus. Manufacturers responded with quick production of more gloves that were cheaper.

But latex gloves pose more threat to those with latex allergies than other products, not only because of their composition but because of the powder used to make it easier to put the gloves on.

"On the whole, latex doesn't jump out and attack you," Zucker-Pinchoff said. Instead, the powder can bind latex protens, which then get aerosolized, making it easier for someone with an allergy to come in contact with or breathe in the latex.

As with most allergens, avoidance is the best way to prevent an attack. After Zucker-Pinchoff and Lockwood left their jobs, they both found their conditions became more manageable. Zucker-Pinchoff needed no medications while Lockwood needed occasional antihistamines and oral steroids.

Riedl said there has been a move toward using powder-free latex gloves as well as nonlatex gloves that use synthetic rubbers in hospitals because people are more aware of latex allergies.

Bringing a personal supply of nonlatex gloves to a hospital or a doctor's office and keeping some epinephrine and antihistamine handy are proactive things one can do in order to prevent or manage a reaction.

If the Glove Fits

But experts say interest in the issue has faded in the last five years.

"It's become blasé to even talk about latex allergy," said Dr. Hugh Windom, an allergy specialist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Southern Florida. "We're not seeing the numbers we used to, which is good news."

The prevalence of latex allergies in the general population has always been relatively low compared to at-risk groups -- health-care workers and people who undergo multiple surgeries.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimate that about 1 percent of the general population is sensitive to latex, while about 12 percent of health-care workers, who are regularly exposed to the protein, are sensitive.

But the severity of a latex allergy and the widespread use of latex still call for caution.

Stadtmauer, of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, recalled one case of a woman who got hair extensions at a salon, not realizing that the glue used contained latex. The proteins were absorbed quickly through the scalp, and she had a reaction.

"Really, you don't know," Stadtmauer said. "It can crop up in unusual places."

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