The milky sap of some plants, especially the rubber tree that grows in tropical regions, is known as latex. Sap is released by plants as a response to injury, a similar mechanism to human bleeding. Its purpose is to protect the plant against insect attacks. It mostly consists of water, with some sugars and proteins.
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The latex produced by plants is usually white, but yellow, orange or scarlet varieties are also possible. Natural latex is rarely used today and the one found in the composition of various products is a synthetic replacement.
Latex is used to manufacture many common items, such as medical devices or condoms. It can trigger allergic reactions, usually after using latex household gloves. There are at least 40000 different items that include latex in their composition.
Around 10% of all angiosperms, which are the common flowering plants, produce latex as a milky fluid. It is a liquid inside the plant but quickly becomes solid in contact with air. It also consists of a mix of sugars, oils, proteins, alkaloids, starches, gums, tannins and resins. Plants release it after the outer tissue is breached. White latex is by far the most common but it can also be yellow, orange or red.
Latex is also a generic term for the fluid found inside plants, a name that dates from the 17th century. It protects plants from insects that would otherwise consume them. Latex is not the same as plant sap, it serves a completely different purpose and it is produced separately.
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Products like latex condoms, gloves or clothes are made from the natural latex that forms rubber. In this case, the word latex is especially used to designate natural rubber that can be used without any vulcanization.
Tribes living in Equatorial areas have been cultivating and harvesting latex for a very long time. They named it "caoutchouc", which refers to the method of collection and can be roughly translated as "tear of the tree".
Many plant species produce latex, both dicotyledonous and monocotyledonous varieties. It is actually found in members of over 40 major plant families, with a total of more than 20000 individual species. Some conifers and pteridophytes also produce latex. It is more common in tropical plants, 14% of which include latex while the percentage drops to 6% in cooler climates. Milk caps such as Lactarius deliciosus release latex when hurt, so it is also found in mushrooms. Scientists suspect that convergent evolution has created latex for the same purpose in multiple different species.
Some people can have allergic reactions after contact with latex, which is considered as a threat by their immune systems. People who commonly use rubber gloves or other latex items are more likely to become allergic. As a result, hospital workers are the most vulnerable, as well as people who have been through surgery several times.
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The latex allergy is usually connected to other allergies and around half of the people who have it are allergic to other items as well. The most common connected allergies are triggered by fruits like kiwis, avocados, bananas or chestnuts.
The intensity of the allergic reactions depends on the person. While the symptoms are mild in most cases, hundreds of people suffer anaphylaxis due to latex every year, which is a potentially lethal reaction to allergy. The symptoms become worse with additional exposure to latex.
Latex allergies must be diagnosed properly, in order to avoid a condition that can become extremely dangerous. Healthcare specialists like immunologists and allergists are trained to identify this issue early and treat its symptoms in order to reduce the risks.
The allergy to latex is often connected to various food allergies. There are many foods that can trigger these allergies but the most common are fruits and a few vegetables. Examples include the chestnut, kiwi, melons, papaya, apple, avocado, banana, raw potato, tomato, carrot and celery.
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Contact with latex in form of natural rubber can trigger three types of adverse reactions.
The most common is a Type I allergic reaction that is IgE-mediated. This is a potentially lethal problem because it is a real allergic reaction that involves a strong immune response.
The other reactions are less severe: a Type IV contact dermatitis mediated by cells and an even milder form of irritant dermatitis.
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The Type I latex allergy (IgE-mediated) is a reaction to the natural proteins found in the composition of latex. The immune system flags them as a threat and produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies in response. The symptoms of allergy appear when the latex proteins react with IgE antibodies.
In order to initiate an allergic reaction, natural latex proteins don't necessarily have to make contact with the skin, even if this is the most common scenario. Allergies are also triggered when the proteins are breathed inside the lungs or come in contact with the mouth or other mucous membranes.
If you suffer from an allergy to latex, you should avoid this material at all costs. Latex allergies tend to be very severe and can be lethal.
Skin inflammation is known in medical terms as dermatitis. The Type IV cell-mediated contact dermatitis is a lesser form of allergy that can't actually be lethal. Unlike the more severe form, it doesn't seem to be triggered by the natural proteins of latex but rather by various chemicals used to manufacture it. Since there are many such chemicals, it is quite difficult to identify the one you are allergic to, especially since the symptoms appear one or two days after contact. The symptoms disappear without any treatment but touching other areas of the skin can spread them around. Most people who suffer from the more serious IgE-mediated latex allergy will initially experience milder contact dermatitis.
The mildest reaction after contact with rubber made from natural latex is irritant contact dermatitis. It is very common and is not a form of allergy. The symptoms appear between 12 and 24 hours after skin contact with latex and consist of an itchy red rash in the area.
Irritant contact dermatitis can be triggered in some additional ways, for example after the use of hand sanitizers or if you wash your hands often but don't dry them properly. The powder that results from gloves can also cause irritation due to friction.
Powdered latex gloves are a common source of irritation and anyone who uses them risks developing this condition. While not severe, contact dermatitis should be treated by sensitive people as a warning sign for allergy.
The first symptoms after contact with latex items consist of redness, swelling or itching in the affected area. For example, the skin can become red, swollen and itchy after applying a bandage, or the lips display the same symptoms after inflating a balloon. Latex gloves are commonly used by dentists and can cause itching or swelling inside the mouths of patients. The same can happen in the genital area after using diaphragms and condoms, or in the aftermath of vaginal or rectal exams.
If you are allergic to latex, the reactions after direct contact with it can be a lot more severe. Very sensitive people can be affected even when in the same room with latex items such as balloons, due to the small amount of powder in the air.
These severe reactions can be sneezing, a running nose, eye inflammation, hives or really dangerous symptoms such as asthma and other breathing issues or even anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is the most dangerous reaction of all and can even cause death when the allergy is very strong.
As a result, latex allergy is considered a very serious condition and you should not ignore any warning signs. The reactions will only get more serious in time, after contact with latex. The consequences can be occupational asthma and other chronic diseases if latex exposure continues.
A number of contacts with latex are usually needed before the initial symptoms of allergy. The common reactions are a running nose, itching or hives. Some people experience asthma, with difficulty breathing, wheezing and a sensation of tightness in the chest. Sensitive people will be affected just a few minutes after exposure to the product. Anaphylaxis is the most drastic symptom of latex allergy and can even be fatal due to a major drop in blood pressure and serious breathing issues.
Latex gloves often cause allergic reactions on the skin after it comes in contact with the proteins inside the substance. The skin area that came in contact with latex will quickly become red, swollen or itchy. Allergies of this type used to be very common but their number has reduced significantly lately. This is because doctors are now using latex gloves with a reduced content of proteins, or gloves that are made from other materials.
Allergic contact dermatitis is a distinct form of skin allergy that is not triggered by the latex in gloves but by other chemicals involved in the manufacturing process. The normal symptoms appear on the back of the hands and consist of blisters or eczema. It starts between 1 and 3 days after using the gloves.
It is also possible to experience latex allergy without even touching any latex items. The latex in gloves can be inhaled from the air as powder, which is enough to start an allergy and even severe reactions like anaphylaxis in sensitive people.