Latex Allergy and Occupational Asthma

 

Occupational asthma causes asthma symptoms due to exposures to allergens or irritants in the workplace. Natural rubber latex can be a trigger for occupational asthma. Up to 18% of healthcare workers have natural rubber latex allergy. Women are more likely to be exposed to latex in their workplace than men.

Sources of airborne latex include: powdered, natural rubber latex (NRL) gloves and latex balloons.

Which jobs are most at risk for occupational asthma due to latex allergy?

  • Healthcare workers: physicians (especially surgeons), dentists, nurses, dental hygienists, dental and medical students and laboratory technicians.
  • Professional cleaning and housekeeping staff
  • Food handlers
  • Hairdressers
  • Workers making natural rubber latex products

 

Photo of Female nurse in hospital reception area, smiling, portrait

How is occupational asthma due to latex allergy diagnosed? 

An allergist can make the diagnosis of asthma and latex allergy, then determine whether asthma is triggered by latex. Some of the factors used in making the diagnosis include:

 

Confirmation of asthma symptoms 

  • cough
  • wheeze
  • chest tightness
  • shortness of breath
Photo of Man coughing

Where symptoms occur

Symptoms occur at the workplace and then improve away from work, on weekends, and while on vacation; over time, symptoms can become persistent.

Physical examination

A doctor skilled in the evaluation of asthma and occupational diseases will look for signs of latex allergy and asthma.

Asthma tests to confirm the diagnosis of asthma

  • Chest X-ray: helps eliminate the possibility of other lung problems, but frequently is normal.
  • Spirometry: simple breathing test that can establish airflow obstruction. Repeat spirometry test after inhaling albuterol can determine if lung function improves.
  • Methacholine challenge: a breathing test to help confirm asthma when spirometry is normal.
  • Peak flow: simple handheld device to check peak expiratory flow rate before, during, and after work to determine if lung function decreases at work and improves away from work.

Tests to confirm the diagnosis of latex allergy

A blood test for latex-specific IgE can help confirm a latex allergy. Elevated levels of IgE to certain latex proteins are highly predictive of latex-induced asthma.

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How do you prevent occupational asthma due to latex?

It is important to identify occupational asthma due to latex in its early stages. Early diagnosis helps workers and employers find ways to reduce latex exposures in the workplace and is key to improved long-term outcomes.

Steps you can take to prevent latex exposures in the workplace include:

  • Avoid and/or reduce airborne latex: substitute powdered latex gloves with low protein powder-free gloves or latex-free gloves.
  • Avoid rubber balloons and processes where latex products are produced.
  • Watch for other asthma triggers – once  a person is allergic to latex, other irritants like smoke and fumes can aggravate asthma.
  • Use face masks to reduce latex exposure; keep in mind a face mask does not completely prevent latex-triggered asthma.
  • Treat asthma with medications as prescribed by your doctor.

Is there any treatment for occupational asthma due to latex?

Researchers continue to explore latex allergy immunotherapy but it is not an approved treatment. Latex allergy shots have been associated with a high risk of side effects. Latex allergy tablets that dissolve under the tongue have shown promise in small clinical trials with less side effects.

The best treatment is to avoid exposure to latex, thereby avoiding an asthma flare.

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