The dozens of balloons that fell on the crowd at Adele’s concert earlier this month in Adelaide, Australia, was probably a fun surprise for most attendees. But for Pooja Newman, a mother of three with a severe latex allergy, the trick nearly killed her.
The balloons were coated in latex powder, Newman, 38, told a local news station, and caused her to have a dangerous reaction. “I felt my lips swelling and couldn’t breathe,” she told 7 News. “I knew I was in trouble.”
Newman’s sister called an ambulance after three EpiPens were not enough to stop her swelling. She was transported to a local hospital, where she was still recovering in the intensive care unit a few days later.
Latex is a natural rubber that’s found in thousands of products, from condoms to children’s toys. About 1% to 5% of the general population is allergic to latex, but the number is higher—about 10% to 17%—among health-care workers. (Doctors and nurses who wear gloves or handle equipment made with latex are more likely to develop an allergy, because the risk increases with repeated exposure.)
Newman is, in fact, a doctor, and is president of the advocacy group Anaphylaxis Australia. After her close call, she is urging event organizers to rethink using props that could expose large crowds of people to the material.
A latex allergy can appear at any time in childhood or adulthood, says Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist with the non-profit Allergy & Asthma Network. (As a result of the concert incident, the Allergy & Asthma Network partnered with Avella Specialty Pharmacy to release a new paper on the risks associated with latex allergies.) Latex reactions can also vary a great deal, she says, from mild to deadly.
Some people may only develop a rash or itching, while others can go into anaphylactic shock. “If you have anything more than a rash, even if it is sneezing, coughing, wheezing these are all signs you are at risk for a severe reaction,” Dr. Parikh says.
It’s also important to know that latex allergies aren’t just triggered by touch, she says. Some people are so sensitive that inhalation of latex particles—like the fine powder that can coat gloves or balloons—can also set off a reaction.
Once someone is diagnosed, Dr. Parikh says, it’s important for them to avoid latex in any form. As the public becomes better educated about latex allergies, its use has declined—but, as Newman’s experience shows, it's still out there. Just a few places latex can still be found are in condoms, adhesives, bandages, rubber bands, toys, sports equipment (like tennis and basketballs), compression stockings, medical masks, catheters, stethoscopes, and—yup—balloons.
“The main thing we can learn from the concert in Australia is that it is very important to have your emergency medication and use it immediately when you start experiencing distress,” says Dr. Parikh, “but also to not hesitate to call 911, as the medication may not be enough to stop the reaction.”
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She also recommends carrying at least two epinephrine auto injectors, as often one is not enough during severe reactions. “Timing is everything, even with an ambulance on the way,” she says.
It’s also a good idea for people with latex allergies to carry an antihistamine like Benadryl (although this won’t help during a severe reaction), and to wear a medical alert bracelet so medical providers will be aware of their allergy if they’re unconscious or unable to speak. “A lot of medical devices or facilities may contain latex, so it is important to let all health care facilities know,” she says.