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.
But now? 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.
Why? My 9-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a severe, airborne, Type I latex allergy last year. 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.
That makes it impossible for me to look at latex balloons -- a party staple that, for me, used to be synonymous with joy and celebration -- with anything but fear.
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.
Instead, 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 REALLY allergic. Like, "no joke, carry an epi-pen, wear a medical alert bracelet, avoid all exposure to latex" allergic.
Life-threatening allergic, the doctors told us.
Since her diagnosis, when I've told other adults about her severe latex allergy I've found they, like me, thought it was just a mild skin reaction. Some didn't know latex allergies existed at all. 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 five things you should know about latex allergy:
1. Latex allergy is not just a "skin thing"
There are two types of latex allergy. Type I -- the type my daughter has -- is life-threatening and can be triggered by contact with mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth) or inhalation. Type IV latex allergy is less severe and is the more common allergy. Type IV causes contact dermatitis in allergic individuals. Both types of allergies get worse with exposure, and Type IV can evolve into Type I, which means it's important to be vigilant.
2. Latex and “natural rubber” are the same thing, and natural rubber is everywhere
That means latex is in not just balloons, but also 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). My daughter has to avoid all of it.
3. Certain products are more likely to cause reactions than others
The severity of an allergic reaction depends on 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 food service
Luckily, Arizona -- where we live -- is one of them. 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 -- a dangerous scenario for my daughter.
5. People with latex allergies may also be allergic to some fruits and vegetables
That's because some fruits and vegetables 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 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.
For more information and resources about latex allergy, visit the Allergy & Asthma Network's Latex Allergy Toolbox.
Kindle Rising is the publisher of Macaroni Kid East Tucson, Ariz.