Latex, food allergies go hand-in-hand, as number of products rise
People with an allergy to latex develop food ones, too. iStock
POSTED: Wednesday, November 5, 2014, 3:40 AM
Lisa Batchelder of West Orange, N.J., first noticed it as a young adult. “When I carried a plastic bag on my arm, I got welts on my skin,” she recalled. After a similar reaction to an adhesive bandage, she learned she was allergic to latex.
Now the violinist keeps a mental list of things she avoids, especially at doctors’ offices, from EKG patches to hospital bracelets. Like many with a latex allergy, Batchelder also has adverse reactions to foods that allergists call “cross-reactive,” such as melons and apples.
One out of 1,000 Americans develops a latex allergy, according to the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). Most get “contact dermatitis” — a poison ivy-like rash that appears 12 to 24 hours after a close encounter with latex.
Some have severe reactions after inhaling latex powder, commonly found in disposable and rubber gloves and in balloons. The throat swells, breathing is difficult and blood pressure plummets. The patient sweats profusely, vomits or faints. Left untreated, this can be fatal.
“Latex” refers to the sap of a rubber tree and to synthetic rubber or plastic used to make many common products. Some products called “latex,” like house paints, are not made with the natural substance and do not trigger the allergy.
Doctors say latex allergies are more common than they were a generation ago, but so are latex products. They include baby bottles/nipples, balls, condoms, boots, diaphragms, erasers, Halloween masks, pacifiers, exercise resistance bands, mattresses, shoes, stretchy clothing and many types of toys.
In addition to omnipresent disposable gloves, other medical equipment that may contain latex includes bandages, blood pressure cuffs, catheters, orthodontic elastics, stethoscopes, syringes and tourniquets. In fact, many suffer their first latex reactions after medical or dental procedures.
Singer-songwriter Tiffany Carlen discovered her latex allergies while delivering her first child.
“The nurse gave me a catheter, then came back and said, ‘Uh-oh, I think you’re having a reaction to this,’ and removed it,” said Carlen, of Burleson, Tex.. “I had massive swelling.” Now she warns health care workers of her allergy.
The more exposure to latex, the more likely the body treats it as an allergen, said Fayne L. Frey, a dermatologist from West Nyack, N.Y., who has a latex-free office because of her own allergies.
“That’s why it’s much more common among health care workers,” Frey said. Other high-risk groups include people who have had multiple surgical procedures, like spina bifida victims, and people who routinely use rubber gloves, like hair salon employees.
There is no cure for latex allergies, said Frey, “so you just have to avoid it as much as you can.”
Doctors recommend seeing an allergist to identify the allergy with a blood or skin test. Sensitivity can increase or decrease with age, and it runs in families. Triggers vary from one person to the next.
Wear a medical ID bracelet or necklace to alert health care personnel. Keep a letter from your doctor and a medication list in your wallet. Stash nonlatex gloves in your car, home and office.
Carry medications to thwart allergic reactions or at least buy time to get to a hospital. For some people, these include antihistamines or bronchodilator inhalers. People prone to anaphylactic attacks should carry epinephrine self-injectors (EpiPen).
Think ahead, said Frey. When she participates in a triathlon, she packs a nonlatex swim cap. Before she goes to the doctor or dentist, she calls to make sure they will not use latex products. If she’s not sure about a product, she uses caution. “I wash the daylights out of sports bras before I wear them,” she said.
People with latex allergies often have serious food allergies too. In fact, they should not try new fruits or vegetables without having epinephrine on hand, advises the AAFA’s website. Avocados, bananas, chestnuts and kiwis top the list, but many patients have longer no-no lists.
“I carry an EpiPen ever since my ‘jicama incident,’” Batchelder said of the food that sent her to the ER with heart palpitations.
The combination of latex and food allergies challenges parents, especially, because they cannot monitor every food their children touch or eat.
“When the kids are young, you have to tell teachers, doctors and other parents — not just about the allergies, but that they can be serious,” said Karen Mallia, a university professor from Columbia, S.C. She shares latex and food allergies with her daughter, Emily Bakaj, 21.
Despite Mallia’s warnings, Bakaj’s kindergarten teacher instructed her to fill pine cones with peanut butter, which was on the child’s food allergy list. Her eyes swelled shut and she needed multiple doses of antihistamines.
When kids are older, they know what foods they must avoid, said Mallia, “but they don’t want to be singled out. And, they get cavalier about watching out for themselves.”
Vigilance is their watchword, said the patients and parents.
Having a latex allergy in the family turns you into a product label reader, said Carlen. “You learn which ones are OK for you. Instead of Band-Aids, I buy Curad bandages.”
Do not assume “hypoallergenic” means latex-free, warns the AAFA’s website.
Some latex sources are impossible to avoid, like rubber bands, said Batchelder. Not so with rubber gloves. “That one’s easy,” she joked. “I just don’t do housework!”
aafa.org (Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America)
aanma.org (Allergy & Asthma Network, a patient-advocacy group, formerly the Allergy & Asthma Network Mothers of Asthmatics)
acaai.org (American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology)
©2014 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services