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Latex Gloves

Latex gloves are common in medical practices.

Latex gloves are commonly used in medical practice to protect against infectious diseases. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Latex gloves are commonly used in medical practice to protect against infectious diseases.

Latex Gloves

Latex gloves are a staple in the medical field, used by professionals such as doctors and nurses to dentists and dental hygienists. Latex gloves are primarily used to avoid infection and diseases being passed from medical personnel to patients, and vice versa. Originally used in the late 1800s by William Stewart Halsted (first surgeon-in-chief of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore) to protect the hands of scrub nurses, latex gloves were soon used in operating rooms throughout the country. With the impact of AIDS in the 1980s, use of latex gloves increased, and spread outside of operating rooms and into most other areas of medicine.

Benefits of Latex Gloves

Latex gloves are preferred for work in the medical field, not only because they protect the user's hands against bacteria and infection, but because of their fit and flexibility, as users are able to pick up even small objects while wearing them. Durability is another important characteristic of latex gloves.

Allergic Reactions to Latex Gloves

A serious drawback to latex gloves is the development of an allergic reaction with repeated exposure to the rubber and dusting powders used in the manufacturing and use of the gloves. For wearers as well as patients, the dusting powder and proteins found in latex rubber can cause a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. It is believed that about 6 percent of the general population has an allergy to latex, while the risk of developing this allergy increases for individuals such as healthcare workers who are exposed to latex on a regular basis.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) states that health care workers with increased exposure to latex, those with certain food allergies or other allergies such as hay fever, or who have a family history of allergies are at an increased risk of developing an allergy to latex. Allergic reactions to latex can be mild, such as developing a contact dermatitis on the hands, and can lead to a more serious reaction known as anaphylaxis. According to the Mayo Clinic, anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction wherein the person suffers from a drop in blood pressure and difficulty breathing due to a restriction in airways. Anaphylaxis can lead to death if not treated immediately. A person with a latex allergy can have a serious reaction even without any previous symptoms.

Alternatives to Latex Gloves

Despite the proven benefits of the use of latex gloves by medical personnel, such as decreases in infections and the spread of diseases, concern about the risks of latex and allergies has led to the use of low-protein or powder-free latex gloves, which can help to reduce allergic reactions, as well as gloves made of other synthetic rubbers, such as Nitrile or neoprene. Disposable vinyl gloves are also an option, though these gloves are not as form-fitting and have a decreased level of protection. In January 2008, Johns Hopkins Hospital, ironically the first institution to use latex gloves in medical procedures, announced that the medical center was no longer using latex products and were instead implementing the use of sterile neoprene and polyisoprene gloves in their operating rooms.

Improvements to Latex Gloves

In April 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cleared the way for a new and improved latex glove that may potentially eliminate the risk associated with latex allergies. Made from guayule latex rather than traditional rubber latex that carries the protein responsible for causing allergies, studies on this new latex glove have shown it to produce no allergic reactions on initial exposure. The FDA cautions that long-term use and the risk of developing allergies to this new latex glove are not known, and for now, warning labels stressing the potential of allergic reactions will be posted on any products made from guayule.

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