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Allergies and Hand Protection: What You Need to Know

Skin problems caused by allergies can range from uncomfortable to severe. © chomplearn_2001 –

Protective gloves are a necessity for many workers, who must perform tasks that bring their hands into proximity or actual contact with harsh chemicals, bloodborne pathogens, sharp tools, heat, cold temperatures and other hazards. While most forms of hand protection can be worn regularly with no ill effects, there are a few that can have unintended effects, for people who have allergies or sensitivities to some of their components.

Fortunately, glove manufacturers have made great strides in leaching proteins used to stabilize latex from gloves. Even though there are fewer workers experiencing allergic reactions to hand protection these days, it is still important to be aware of glove types that may be harmful to some workers.

Allergy: Latex

Cause: Certain proteins that are in natural rubber latex derived from rubber trees trigger a reaction in your body, which releases antibodies and histamine to combat it. In addition to skin problems, a latex allergy can affect the respiratory system when an individual with a latex allergy breathes in latex particles that become airborne when they or someone near them removes latex gloves. A skin test conducted by a physician can confirm the existence of a latex allergy.

Symptoms: Mild to severe, depending upon exposure and sensitivity levels. Hives, itching, red patches on skin, runny nose, water or itchy eyes, wheezing, sneezing, coughing, even anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening condition that can cause throat swelling and severe difficulty breathing as well as nausea and vomiting, loss of consciousness, low blood pressure and a weak or rapid pulse. As with some other types of allergies, symptoms can become worse over successive exposures – a process known as sensitization. Fortunately, anaphylaxis does not usually occur after the first exposure.

Who’s at risk:

  • Healthcare workers: An estimated 8-12% of healthcare workers who are regularly exposed to latex become sensitized to it, compared with 1-6% of the general population.[1]
  • Likewise, patients who’ve had repeated exposure to latex gloves because they’ve undergone a number of medical procedures are also at risk.
  • People with a family history of allergies – including food allergies and hay fever – make people more susceptible to latex allergies. If you’ve had allergic reactions to avocados, bananas, passion fruit, chestnuts and kiwi, you may have a latex allergy, because those fruits contain some of the same allergens found in latex.
  • People who work in the rubber industry are prone to latex allergies, as are those with spina bifida.

What to do: Workers with a latex allergy should use nitrile, neoprene or vinyl gloves. In mild cases, antihistamines or corticosteroids prescribed by a health care provider can lessen symptoms and relieve discomfort. If there’s been an anaphylactic reaction, immediately seek emergency medical care, which will likely be an injection of adrenaline (epinephrine).

Allergies: Nitrile and Neoprene

Causes: Exposure to accelerators that help solidify liquid synthetic rubber.

Symptoms: Reactions to nitrile and neoprene gloves are generally confined to the skin under the gloves. Sufferers may experience a rash, itching, hives, white raised bumps, a burning sensation, blisters, cracked skin and sensitivity to the sun.

Who’s at risk: Workers who opt for latex-free gloves and those who have to wash their hands frequently. Allergic reactions to nitrile and neoprene are much less common than allergies to latex.

What to do: Wash hands with soap or apply hydrocortisone to the affected area. Rashes and cracked skin may require medical treatment if they fail to resolve.

Allergy: Vinyl

Cause: Lack of ventilation, perspiration from wearing chemical-resistant gloves, leakage that occurs over time, resulting in hands being exposed to substances being handled.

Symptoms: Urticaria, an itchy, swollen, red rash.

Who’s at risk: Allergic reactions to vinyl gloves are rare.

What to do: Switch to natural or synthetic gloves. Wear gloves with sweat-absorbing fabric liners.

Allergy: Allergic Contact Dermatitis

Cause: Allergic contact dermatitis is caused by exposure to chemicals like thiurams, dithiocarbamates, and mercaptobenzothiazole that are added to gloves during the manufacturing process. It is often confused with irritant contact dermatitis, which is not caused by an allergen but is linked to frequent hand washing, repeated exposure to an irritant or wearing rubber gloves for long periods of time.

Symptoms: Skin ulcers or a skin rash with lesions and blisters that look like poison ivy and appears 24 to 48 hours after exposure. Ulcers may also form. (Irritated, itchy skin is the primary symptom of irritant contact dermatitis.)

Who’s at risk: Workers who may experience allergic contact dermatitis symptoms include those who are exposed to textile chemicals, nickel, preservatives, hair dyes and photo allergent.

What to do: Consult a dermatologist or an allergist to determine if symptoms are caused by allergic contact dermatitis or irritant contact dermatitis. Treatment may be necessary to avoid an infection.  Discuss prevention measures with your doctor and manager.

Understanding the effects that certain types of gloves can have on some workers can help companies avoid health problems, related medical expenses, lost time and the downturn in productivity that may go with it. WMHS

Shana McGuinn is a freelance writer specializing in topics surrounding PPE, workplace safety and chemical safety.


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