I'm Terrified of Balloons...Here's why.

Severe Latex Allergies are More than a "Skin Thing"

By Kindle Rising, East Tucson Macaroni Kid Publisher October 4, 2019

I used to love balloons. I would fill my daughters’ rooms with them on their birthdays. I popped them every hour on the hour as part of our New Year's Eve countdown. I would use dozens of balloons to decorate events. All that has changed. Now my chest tightens in panic and the hair on the back of my neck prickles with anxiety when I see even a single balloon.

No, I don’t have globophobia (fear of balloons, it is a thing, just not my thing), and I still love a good Mylar balloon (or a dozen), but after my 9-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a severe, airborne, Type 1 latex allergy last year, it is hard for me to look at latex balloons with anything but fear. If latex particles were to come into contact with my daughter’s eyes, nose, or mouth, or if she were to breathe in that powdery film that is on many latex products, she could have an anaphylactic reaction. In short, balloons could be deadly for her.

Balloons...yes, BALLOONS...could be deadly for my daughter.

We had no reason to suspect my daughter would be at risk for a latex allergy. The most high-risk populations are children with spina bifida and healthcare workers who wear latex gloves every day. My daughter is in neither of these groups. We discovered her allergy after she broke out in full-body hives during an art camp where she used latex molds to make plaster figurines. Even then I brushed it off, thinking latex allergy was only a “skin thing” and it wasn't such a big deal. I almost forgot to have her tested. Imagine my utter disbelief when I found out that not only is she allergic, she is Type 1, IgE mediated, REALLY allergic. Like, no joke, carry an epi-pen, wear a medical alert bracelet, avoid all exposure to latex allergic. Life-threatening allergic.

Since her diagnosis, I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve learned several surprising things about natural rubber latex and latex allergies. I realized that most people are probably like I was, assuming that latex allergy is a mild "skin thing", and I began to realize how important it is to get this information out there, for my daughter and for anyone who might be suffering from this allergy. 

Here are 5 things you should know about latex allergy (that I wish I had known): 

1. Latex allergy is not just a "skin thing". In fact, there are two types of latex allergy. Type I is life-threatening and can be triggered by contact with mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth) or inhalation. Type IV latex allergy is the more common allergy, causing contact dermatitis in allergic individuals. BOTH types of allergies get worse with exposure, and Type IV can evolve into Type I, so it is important to be vigilant.

2. Latex and “natural rubber” are the same thing, and natural rubber (latex) is everywhere. Balloons, rubber bands, latex gloves, bandages, duct tape adhesive, baby toys, pacifiers and bottle nipples, medical and dental equipment, elastic in clothing ... the list goes on (there are 40,000 products containing latex worldwide). 

3. Certain products are more likely to cause reactions than others because of the way the rubber is treated. Essentially, latex items that have the powdery stuff to keep them from sticking together are the worst: gloves, balloons, rubber bands, and condoms are among the most reactive products. (Yes, I foresee a BIG future conversation with my daughter about that last one).

4. Only a handful of states have laws prohibiting the use of latex gloves in foodservice. Luckily, Arizona is one of them, and California just passed a similar law. When traveling in other states, though, it is important to check ahead at restaurants. A latex-gloved hand could transfer latex particles to food, which could be dangerous for an allergic person.

5. People with latex allergies may also be allergic to fruits and vegetables that contain the same proteins as natural rubber. Avocados, bananas, and kiwis most commonly cause cross-reactions, but the list is longer than you might expect (apples, carrots, melons, potatoes...). Yes, my kid has many of these cross-reactive allergies. No, it's not fun.

Type I latex allergy is a life-changing diagnosis, and like any diagnosis, especially “invisible” ones, it comes with additional baggage. In the year since we learned about her latex allergy, my daughter has already experienced isolation, rejection, and worry about having her safety compromised by people who simply don’t know or don’t understand. The other day we were watching a movie that showed a high school prom decorated with hundreds of balloons. My daughter turned to me wide-eyed and said, “I’m not going to be able to go to my prom, am I?” 

My daughter is not going to miss her prom on my watch! Severe latex allergy is not curable or preventable, but anaphylactic reactions ARE preventable. Education and advocacy are key: in medical settings, at schools, in restaurants, and especially at social events. If this article makes you think twice before you fill an event hall with latex balloons or organize a water balloon fight, then BOTH my daughter and I will be able to breathe a little easier. No one should have to be terrified by a balloon.

Kindle Rising is the publisher of East Tucson Macaroni Kid in Tucson, Arizona and the mom of two daughters. She is also a speech-language pathologist who has worked in medical and research settings. Researching medical issues is not new to her, but being an allergy mom is. The latter thing is harder.

For more information and resources about latex allergy, visit the Allergy & Asthma Network's Latex Allergy Toolbox