Latex allergy has 'almost disappeared' among HCWs

Better gloves mean less sensitivity

Vendors really do listen to their customers. That is the lesson of the latex experience.

At its peak, about one in 10 health care workers (8% to 12%)1 suffered from latex sensitization. But a shift to powder-free, low-protein latex gloves has allowed even latex-allergic employees to return to work.

As hospitals continue to evaluate alternatives to latex, they find few new sensitizations and higher-quality latex and nonlatex gloves.

"Latex allergy has very significantly declined and almost disappeared," says Gordon Sussman, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and staff immunologist and allergist at St. Michael's Hospital. He is a leading researcher of latex allergy among health care workers.

"It's because of initiatives of government, hospitals, and industry, which have changed their products. The exam gloves are 1,000-fold less allergenic and sterile gloves about 100-fold less allergenic [than they were in the 1980s]," he reports.

In fact, Sussman recently retested 30 health care workers with latex sensitivity. Two-thirds of them had lower sensitivity, he says. "In a few patients, the skin test had converted to a negative test," he says.

Although the FDA never finalized labeling standards for powder and protein in gloves, the industry established its own standards for gloves, Sussman says.

However, he cautions: "We don't want to let our guard down. Latex allergy can re-emerge if we don't continue with the vigilance. Although it's a happy ending, it may not be an ending if we don't keep up with the standards we've developed."

Employee health professionals should remain alert for symptoms of latex allergy, he says. Those include skin rash or inflammation, respiratory irritation, shortness of breath or wheezing or unexplained shock after contact with latex, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which issued an alert on latex allergy in 1997. The symptoms can appear within minutes or may occur hours later.1

Some hospitals have continued the quest for better gloves and latex alternatives. At Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, a latex-safe unit was successful and the entire hospital now is converting to vinyl exam gloves. "It's better for the employees as well as the patients," reports Cindy Taube, RN, COHN-S, workers' compensation manager.

At Kaiser Permanente, the latex-alternative products committee continues to meet and review new glove technology. In general, the quality and cost of both latex and synthetic gloves have dramatically improved, says Wendy Huber, MD, chair of the committee and chief of dermatology for South Sacramento Kaiser.

"It really [came] from a grass-roots effort in requesting products," Huber says. "If you ask for products, industry starts to respond."


1. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. NIOSH Alert: Preventing Allergic Reactions to Natural Rubber Latex in the Workplace, June 1997; DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 97-135.