Adhesive Allergy

Adhesives are used in a variety of everyday objects, but the ones most commonly coming into contact with our skin is medical tape and bandages. Prolonged contact can leave skin itchy and irritated. This article explains the symptoms, causes, treatments and preventative measures regarding an allergy to adhesives.

What is an Adhesive Allergy?

Adhesive allergy is one of the most commonly documented allergic reactions in hospitals and medical offices. However, it might not be an allergy at all, it might simply be skin irritation. A skin reaction to the adhesive isn’t necessarily an allergy, but it’s difficult for even medical professionals to determine whether a reaction is an allergy or irritant-based. The symptoms and treatment, however, are largely the same for both cases so they are commonly treated as one.

The medical term for a reaction to the adhesive is contact dermatitis, which describes the swelling or inflammation of the skin as a result of coming into contact with an irritant. The chemicals used in many adhesives irritate the skin to the point of redness and even pain. The majority of people do not have this reaction to the chemical but it is common enough to have been studied and documented.

The symptoms of adhesive allergy can last from a few minutes to several hours, depending on the length of contact. Some people report stinging pain, while others report itching and burning. If the symptoms persist for a prolonged period of time or blistering is present, consult a medical professional immediately, as this is indicative of a severe allergic reaction.

What are the symptoms of an Adhesive Allergy?

Symptoms vary slightly between types of adhesives and people, but the main symptoms are largely the same and are typically isolated to the area of contact. They include:

  • Red or pinkish skin
  • Raised skin
  • Rash
  • Inflammation
  • Burning
  • Stinging
  • Soreness
  • Itchiness
  • Small bumps
  • Blisters

Most of these symptoms will be mild and are able to be treated at home or with over-the-counter medications. However, blisters and itching are symptoms of a more severe allergic reaction than contact dermatitis. In these cases, consulting a physician is best because burst blisters can cause an infection.

A skin allergy to adhesives can be determined by a doctor through a patch test. This test can confirm a suspected allergy and it can also help identify the specific chemical that is causing the reaction. Testing may also reveal an underlying problem, such as an allergy to latex, which can cause similar symptoms and is present along with most medical adhesives.

Adhesive Allergy causes

There are a number of chemicals commonly used in adhesives that are known to cause contact dermatitis. Not everyone who has a reaction to one will have a reaction to all of them. If you’re able to identify which one is causing the reaction, you should be able to eliminate the possibility of it coming into contact with it. Below are some of the most commonly reacted-to chemicals used in adhesives:

  • Acrylates: One of the most common ingredients used in many liquid, powder and paste adhesives. It is also used in pumps and continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) systems used to treat diabetes.
  • Colophony: This is a natural adhesive derived from rosin, made from tree sap. It’s found in natural-based adhesives and some medical cleaning wipes.
  • Mastisol: This is another liquid adhesive that can also be sprayed on the skin. It hardens once it dries and is a common cause of allergic reactions.
  • Latex: While sometimes an underlying cause of a reaction, latex can also be used in adhesives themselves.

How is an Adhesive Allergy treated?

Allergic reactions to adhesives will usually resolve themselves within a week once the offending adhesive is removed from the skin. If the skin at the site of the reaction is uncomfortable, there are some steps that can be taken at home to soothe the affected area.

  • Oatmeal baths soothe the skin and refresh the skin’s natural PH balance.
  • Cool compresses can relieve swelling, redness and itching from the site.
  • Dressing in loose, breathable clothing gives your skin the opportunity to heal itself.
  • Cool water baths (no lower than 85°F/29°C) without fragrances help to soothe skin and wash away any leftover adhesive on the skin.

There are also a variety of over-the-counter medications that will help target the histamines in the body responsible for the skin’s reaction to adhesives. These medications include;

  • Oral and/or topical steroids such as hydrocortisone
  • Oral antihistamines, such as Benadryl

If the reaction continues for longer than one week, becomes extremely uncomfortable, or begins to peel or bleed consult a medical professional immediately. While the reaction persists, avoid prolonged direct contact with sunlight on the affected area by applying sunscreens and covering the area in loose-fitting clothing.

Adhesive Allergy prevention

To prevent allergic reactions caused by adhesives, avoid applying adhesives directly to the skin. Instead of using bandages to cover minor skin wounds, using gauze over the wound held in place with a wrap can provide the same comfort and protection without the need for adhesives.

Medical tapes are commonly used in doctor’s offices or hospitals to hold bandages and IVs in place when receiving treatment. If you are aware of an allergy to adhesives, it is best practice to verbally notify each professional involved in your care of your allergy prior to receiving treatment from them. This will ensure adhesives are not used in your treatment by accident, or by force of habit, by those around you.

Another way to safeguard your skin against an allergic reaction is to adopt a healthy skin care routine. Using moisturizer and skipping harsh soaps and extra hot water can help strengthen and protect the skin barrier, making it not as prone to irritation as usual. Dermatologists recommend short, lukewarm showers immediately followed by applying moisturizer.

For CGM users experiencing irritation from adhesives, consult your doctor or a dermatologist to find an alternative solution. Prolonged contact required by a CGM can be harmful and uncomfortable. In these cases, it's best to have a patch test to determine exactly which chemical is causing the irritation so that exposure is eliminated.