Don’t Trust Labels That Read ‘Latex-Free’

Although many people have suffered from allergies as long as they can remember, others are new to this often annoying and, at times, potentially lethal immune response. You can develop an allergy any time, even to something that never used to bother you.

A common later-onset allergy is latex. As discussed in the Harvard Men’s Health Watch newsletter, people who develop an allergy to latex usually have had repeated exposure to certain proteins in natural rubber that their bodies perceive as threatening. Accounts of latex allergies boomed in the 1990s, the newsletter suggests, as increasing numbers of people in health care and associated professions were required to wear gloves in many situations as a measure of infection control.

But if you think the label “latex-free” is your ticket to product security, think again: As the newsletter notes, a consumer update by the FDA says “There’s No Guarantee of ‘Latex Free.'”

Latex is a component of many useful products-adhesive bandages, condoms, balloons, rubber bands, elastic socks and waistbands, baby bottle nipples, pillows …

As many as 12 in 100 health-care workers and 6 in 100 people in general have a latex allergy or sensitivity, according to the newsletter.

No test exists to verify that a product is completely free from latex. “Labeling that suggests a product doesn’t contain the substance could cause trouble for individuals with a latex allergy or sensitivity,” the newsletter warns.

You can be sensitive to an allergen without actually having an allergy. You might get a rash, sneeze and have watery eyes-irritating, but you’re not in danger of anaphylactic shock. That’s a life-threatening, whole-body reaction to an allergen in which the lips and throat may swell, and airways become restricted. (See our blog, “Doctors Often Fall Short in Treating Anaphylactic Allergy Attacks”.)

As the Harvard newsletter notes, even products made without latex can threaten people with latex allergies because sometimes they’re contaminated with latex proteins during the manufacturing or packaging process.

To better inform consumers of what they’re buying and using, the FDA wants to replace “latex free” and “does not contain latex” labels with ones that say “not made with natural rubber latex.” As the newsletter says, because it’s not possible to certify something as truly “latex-free,” those labels still would leave some people at risk, but at least products wouldn’t be promising something they cannot deliver.

Learn more about latex sensitivity and allergy on the websites of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Beyond unpleasant itchy, teary eyes, runny nose and mild headache, be aware of the signs of a dangerous allergic response. Seek immediate medical help if you have:

  • hives or welts
  • swelling of the lips, face or throat
  • abdominal cramps
  • chest tightness, wheezing, or shortness of breath.
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