Relief for latex allergy sufferers


But powder-free gloves will not help all latex victims

The number of new cases of latex allergy appears to have fallen sharply in hospitals that have made the switch to powder-free latex gloves, recent studies suggest.

It looks like the new generation gloves – low protein, powder free – have greatly reduced the risk of developing latex allergy.

However, it is unclear whether powder-free latex gloves also stop existing latex allergies from progressing further.

To be on the safe side, health care workers with an existing latex allergy should try to avoid latex products. They should wear gloves made from alternative products such as neoprene, nylon or silicon.

This was the consensus view of experts at a recent Sydney seminar on the use of latex in health care.

The NSWNA’s health and safety co-ordinator, Trish Butrej, who attended the seminar, said powdered gloves had largely disappeared from public hospitals, in line with NSW Health policy (see box).

‘There is an increasing trend towards the use of low-protein powder-free latex gloves and non-latex gloves in response to the large number of health care workers and patients affected by latex allergy,’ Trish said.

‘It seems some people with an existing allergy can wear powder-free latex gloves without getting a reaction. Will their allergy continue to worsen over time if they wear these gloves? – that question hasn’t been answered yet.’

Latex is the sap of the commercial rubber tree. The proteins in latex can cause a range of mild to severe allergic reactions.

Milder allergic reactions to latex include irritant dermatitis, and itchy and runny eyes and nose.

More severe reactions include hives, angioedema (swelling) and asthma through to anaphylaxis and even death.

When powdered gloves are worn, more latex protein reaches the skin. When gloves are donned or removed, latex protein becomes airborne via the powder particles. The powder can be inhaled and also settles on surfaces such as benches.

NSW Health says work areas where only powder-free gloves are used show low or undetectable airborne levels of allergy-causing proteins.

Up until the 1980s latex was thought to be innocuous with adverse effects confined to dermatitis. In the late 1980s, however, there were a number of reported fatal instances of anaphylaxis in patients. There was also evidence of the emergence of asthma and associated food allergies.

Trish Butrej said the US Food and Drug Administration issued a warning on latex in 1991, yet it took NSW Health almost 10 years to develop a policy.

‘A leading authority on latex allergies, Dr Connie Katelaris of Westmead Hospital, was critical of the Department of Health for its slow response to the issue and for lagging well behind Europe in policy-making. She also criticised NSW Health for its lack of interest in being a party to research on latex allergy,’ Trish said.

Trish said about 1% of the general population is allergic to latex In health care workers it is estimated in various studies as being between 3% and 17%, in rubber industry workers 5%-10%, and in spina bifida patients 10%-68%.