Living with a Latex Allergy: Poison in Surprising Places at Home
Do you know someone with a latex allergy?
Location of life-altering event
Before my honeymoon to Mexico in 2010 I was an allergy-free person. I mean in Spring, sure I was bothered by some typical pollens, but I never had to take Benadryl or carry an Epi-pen. After my run in with a water-born parasite, my body’s immune response went into hyper-drive. After 18 months of medical care, dozens of food allergies, truckloads of medication and supplements, my body is back to quasi-normal, save for my now life-threatening Stage IV latex allergy. I carry an Epi-pen, I have an accommodation at work to be in a latex-free environment, and I’m balancing the line between overly paranoid and cautious as I move through the modern world of plastics. Here is my attempt to help raise awareness to the complications of a latex allergy and give some helpful tips to others who are coping.
What Is Latex?
It is an elastic polymer derived from the natural rubber tree. It is a pliable plastic used for its convenience and cheap production. It is the cheaper alternative to silicone often used for: sealing items airtight, providing a soft grip surface, or for its stretchy quality. And where can it be found? The short answer: EVERYWHERE.
When people think latex, they think condoms and gloves. After an exposure people with a latex allergy will immediately, or within a few minutes, feel a skin irritation, itching and burning in the area that came in contact with the latex. Some may experience difficulty breathing, leading to anaphylaxis. With a few smart choices it is fairly easy to avoid putting on a latex glove or using a latex condom. Other exposures can be much more difficult to track.
So What Exactly Are You Allergic to?
Technically I am allergic to the latex protein, the molecule related to the natural rubber tree. The most common latex reaction is dermatological. When an allergic person touches a surface made of latex, the area that came in contact becomes inflamed and itches. However, the most dangerous type of exposure is airborne latex. Take gloves for example, many latex gloves come covered in powder to prevent them from sticking together. This powder, usually cornstarch, is benign but picks up some surface proteins from the stretchy glove. When a glove is snapped or pulled out of the box, thousands of tiny latex proteins are sprayed into the air, making the allergen airborne in concentrated amounts. The difficulty is that this latex protein dust can settle on anything in the area causing a blanket of potentially lethal molecules.
In the Kitchen
I had to replace $800 in kitchen supplies when I became overly reactive to latex proteins. A good rule of thumb is the more expensive an item is, the less likely it is to contain cheap latex. Products marked with silicone grips and handles are fine. The items from the liquidation stores or off-brands from discount outlets are questionable. Latex may be in handles of pots, pans, and utensils. It can be found on the spoon or spatula end of kitchen utensils. Latex can be found in the seals of cheaper Tupperware or airtight jars. Appliances may use rubber latex for seals between pieces. When it doubt, I threw it out. I didn’t want to chance an episode of anaphylaxis after dinner.
If you are cooking for a guest with a latex allergy, use wooden utensils. Hard plastic is fine but avoid things with rubbery grips, unless you are sure it is silicone.
Latex Free Toothbrush
In the Bathroom
At my most inflammatory stage, I was getting hives every time I took a shower. I prayed that I wasn’t allergic to water. After much research and experimenting, I realized the culprit was the bath mat. Obviously, rubber bathmats are definitely to be avoided but I was reacting to a cotton/polyester bathmat with latex grippers on the bottom. Most carpet grips are made of latex, as is the manufactured backing on carpets. New carpet smell is a combination of formaldehyde, latex, and other poisons off-gassing from the production process.
A big danger area in the bathroom is the medicine cabinet. People with latex allergies can’t use regular bandages as the pliable material, the tape, and the adhesive can contain latex proteins. Bandages must say LATEX FREE on the package. I’ve had good luck with the Nexcare brand.
Hair elastics may cause a reaction depending on the material the band is wrapped in.
The soft grip on a toothbrush may be silicone but double check that free one from the dentist before using if you have a latex allergy. Oral B toothbrushes are known for being latex free. But an extremely allergic person will need to store their toothbrush away from latex containing brands in the holder.
Latex Free Crocs Are an Option
I replaced over $1,000 in clothing when my latex allergy worsened. I can’t wear anything with exposed elastic. So that means underwear needs to have all elastic bands covered in cotton or contain no elastic. Underwear with no elastic, means it falls around your ankles or gives you an eternal-wedgie. There is a reason undergarments contain elastic. I’ve had to get my bras special ordered through a company in Peru that uses allergen-free cotton and no elastic in their bras (even large sizes!)
Socks cannot have exposed elastic bands or large amounts of elastic threading. Nike brand socks have worked well for me.
As a rule spandex causes me a problem. Lycra brand spandex is latex free, however, and is generally more expensive in a well-made garment. Now that I am more healed I can wear clothing that contains up to 5% spandex. Bathing suits are challenging but I’ve found a combo of polyester board shorts and a tankini made of Lycra spandex are okay for short periods of time.
Shoes are difficult. The soles of most shoes are made of rubber. If I touch the rubber bottom of a shoe as I put it on my hand burns and turns red. I’ve become very friendly with Crocs. The Croslite material their shoes are made out of is a plastic alternative to rubber. You do have to read carefully thought because some models have “rubber outsoles”, which are to be avoided. Other shoe options include all leather moccasins and shoes with wooden soles. Some people may find that by having a non-latex insert they can wear any shoe with a rubber sole.
In the Toy Chest
Stretchy, sticky, squishy toys may be made of latex. Stress balls, Koosh balls, rubber kick balls, and some cheap clay brands contain latex. If it is from the dollar store and not made of hard plastic, chances are it contains latex. For a latex allergic child: avoid pliable plastics, try to find vintage wooden toys, or stick to stuffed animals. Anything that smells plastic-y straight out of the package may also be a danger. Pool toys can contain latex as well. The best pool items are vinyl, not latex.
Link to Helpful Info from the American Latex Allergy Association
- Consumer Products | American Latex Allergy Association
Provides resources for people allergic to natural rubber latex, including latex free alternative product lists, informational packets, and support to individuals