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What it's like to have a severe latex allergy during the COVID-19 pandemic

March 24, 2020
Photo courtesy Liv Swanton.
Photo courtesy Liv Swanton. —

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the Michigan State community to adjust to a new ‘normal' following a transition to online classes, the cancellation of sports and other big events.

But for religious studies junior Liv Swanton, COVID-19 has made another part of her life more difficult to manage — her severe latex allergy.

Swanton learned about her allergy on her 14th birthday. She was blowing up latex balloons for her party when she went into anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening allergic reaction.

“We never really had balloons much in our house, just because we don’t like balloons,” said Abby Swanton, Liv’s mother. “We never really gave it a thought. We were a young family growing up and didn’t do a lot of eating out, so it didn’t really impact us.”

Even before the pandemic, Liv struggled with her severe allergy growing up.

She has to be cautious and call ahead to make sure workers don’t use latex gloves in their facilities, always be prepared in the event that she has to be rushed to the hospital with EpiPens and medications at all times.

“It’s hard. It’s difficult,” Liv said. “You have to learn how to dodge the latex. I don’t do a lot of things that other people do. I can’t go bowling, swimming is sometimes problematic, shopping is sometimes problematic. There’s just latex everywhere. There’s latex in a lot of things that people don’t really know about."

Accommodations from schools are just as difficult to obtain, Abby said. The family is currently trying to convince MSU to implement a no-balloon policy at the Class of 2021’s commencement ceremony so that Liv Swanton can receive her diploma with her graduating class.  

Since the novel coronavirus began to spread, Liv said she believes she is at an increased risk of having a reaction now that many locations have workers wearing latex gloves. It stops her from doing more activities than before, including going to the grocery store.

“I’m basically quarantined in my house,” Liv said. “I can’t really go anywhere. So it really sucks, but I have to do what I need to do to be safe. I’d rather stay at home and know that I’ll be safe and have someone else do my grocery shopping and go get stuff for me than go out and take a risk of getting sick and ending up in the hospital.”

Each time Liv experiences an attack, the more sensitive she becomes to latex particles, causing her to be even more cautious than before, Abby said.

“When you have an allergy like that and you can’t necessarily see the particles, there’s a lot of times where there’s a lot of anxiety in social situations,” Abby said. “There’s a lot of disappointment that you feel when you get ready to go to an event and you arrive, even after having told them about your latex allergy, and somebody thinks ‘Oh well, one bouquet of balloons, this won’t really hurt’ and yet it will.”

While Liv said she understands the need for gloves for health and safety, she wishes people would use alternative synthetic gloves instead.

“Educating yourself about latex allergies and understanding that there are different types of latex allergies,” Liv said. “Some people are really really allergic and some people aren’t. There are different options. There are always different options — there are nitrile gloves, there are vinyl gloves, there are poly gloves. They work the same way that latex gloves do.”

Liv said she encourages other students with latex allergies to seek assistance with navigating their allergy during this time.

“Know who your advocates are,” Liv said. “Try your best to stay calm and know that you’re not alone. It sucks, but you’re not alone. It can be lonely sometimes, but it gets better. It will get better.”

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