Also called: Sex Allergies, Intercourse Allergies
Intimate allergies occur when people have allergic reactions that are related to sexual behavior. In some cases, this can be an allergy to a partner’s bodily fluids. In other cases, the culprit is an allergy to a substance associated with sexual activity, such as the latex, lubricant or spermicide in a condom.
Semen allergy (officially known as human seminal plasma hypersensitivity) is an allergy to male ejaculate. Both women and men can suffer from this allergy, which triggers symptoms that are either limited to one area (localized) or that appear throughout the body (generalized). Allergic reactions to condoms – a manifestation of latex allergy – are another reaction associated with sexual activity.
People who suspect that they have an intimate allergy should contact a physician. Physicians can perform tests to determine if an allergy is present and recommend treatment options. Physicians can also recommend certain precautions which can help virtually all allergic individuals and their partners to have fulfilling sexual relationships.
About intimate allergies
Intimate allergies are reactions related to sexual activity. Examples include semen allergy and allergies to the latex, lubricant or spermicide found in condoms. Symptoms can be either localized (appearing in one area, such as the genital area) or generalized (appearing throughout the body).
Semen allergy is an uncommon but potentially severe reaction to male ejaculate. The first case of semen allergy was reported in 1958. Both women and men can react to semen, which is made up of sperm and the liquid in which sperm swim. This liquid contains secretions from the prostate gland, Cowper’s glands, seminal vesicles and urethral glands. It is believed that chemicals from these glands are the source of most semen allergies.
Because the chemicals and proteins in semen are foreign substances, the immune system can perceive them as invaders, triggering an allergic reaction. Certain medications (e.g., penicillin) and foods (e.g., walnuts) have also been found to trigger reactions when transmitted through seminal fluid. An individual may be allergic to one partner’s semen or to the semen of all partners. It is also possible for men to develop an allergy to their own semen.
Some intimate allergies are related to substances associated with intimacy. For example, those with latex allergies may react to condoms or diaphragms made of that material. Some people also have allergies to the spermicides and lubricants used on condoms.
Allergies to semen may be prevented by the careful use of condoms during sexual activity to avoid any exposure to semen. Intimate allergies related to latex allergy may be prevented by the patient and patient’s sexual partner using a different type of condom, like polyurethane. Allergies to spermicide may be prevented through avoiding condoms with spermicide. Lubricant allergies may be prevented by using an alternate lubricant. Patients can consult a physician for recommendations for alternate types of lubricants or condoms.
Types and differences of intimate allergies
Allergies experienced during intimacy are sometimes caused by factors not exclusively related to intimacy. For example, colognes and perfumes can trigger allergies in some people with fragrance sensitivities. However, there are two primary types of allergies related to intimacy:
- Semen allergies. Officially known as human seminal plasma hypersensitivity, this is a reaction to male ejaculate. Both women and men can suffer from this allergy. The exact cause in women is unknown, but men sometimes develop an allergy to their own sperm when it mixes with blood. This abnormal interaction causes blood to develop antibodies to the “invading” sperm. Vasectomy and reverse vasectomy, infection and trauma are the most likely origin of blood and semen mixing.
- Condom allergies. These are reactions to the latex in a condom (or to the latex in a diaphragm or cervical cap), or to the added spermicide or lubricant. There are alternatives to latex condoms that can be safely used. These include condoms without spermicide, and polyurethane or lambskin condoms. However, these may present other issues. For example, lambskin condoms do not provide adequate protection against sexually transmitted diseases such as the HIV/AIDS virus. Polyurethane condoms have a higher rate of breakage than latex and may require a more extensive use of lubricant.
Signs and symptoms of intimate allergies
Symptoms related to intimate allergies vary. Frequently, symptoms will appear as contact dermatitis (irritation caused by a substance) on skin that has had direct contact with an allergen. In other cases, symptoms will appear in other parts of the body, such as general skin itchiness or nasal congestion.
Sudden, severe reactions such as anaphylactic shock can happen to some with intimate allergies, but such symptoms are rare. It is more common to experience less severe symptoms that unfold over a period of time. Symptoms typically occur within 30 minutes of sexual intercourse, but may occur hours or days later in some cases. Over time, patients usually find that their symptoms become worse and occur sooner after exposure.
Signs and symptoms of intimate allergies include:
- Localized reactions
- Swelling, burning, itching, pain, redness or blistering of the genitals
- Swelling, burning, itching, pain, redness or blistering of the genitals
- Generalized reactions
- Nasal congestion
- Swelling around the eyes
- Itchiness over the entire body
- Anaphylactic shock (including swelling in the throat and breathing difficulties)
Reactions related to intimacy can affect sperm’s ability to move, which may inhibit fertilization. Women should also remember that vaginal itching may indicate other conditions such as a yeast infection. It is important for anyone who experiences these symptoms to consult a physician.
Diagnosis and treatment of intimate allergies
A physician trying to diagnose an allergy related to intimacy will take a medical history and perform a physical exam. Allergy tests may be performed to determine the nature of an allergy. One method of confirming a semen allergy diagnosis is for a patient to abstain from sexual intercourse or use condoms during sexual intercourse. If no symptoms appear afterward, an allergy to semen is considered very likely.
Medications are also available to treat symptoms related to intimacy allergies. For example, corticosteroids may be used to treat skin reactions caused by intimate allergies. Patients with a history of severe reactions may be prescribed an allergy kit. In some cases, intimate allergies resolve without treatment.
Prevention methods for intimate allergies
People who have a semen allergy may try a therapy called hyposensitization. This is similar to allergy shots (immunotherapy), in that a patient is exposed to low doses of the allergen – in this case, semen – in hopes of being desensitized.
Women with semen allergies may undergo a form of hyposensitization known as an intravaginal seminal graded challenge (ISGC). During this treatment, samples of semen are placed into the vagina every 20 minutes over a period of a few hours. The initial samples are highly diluted, but over the course of the treatment the concentration is gradually increased until desensitization occurs.
In another form of treatment, proteins from the ejaculate of a man are injected under the skin of his sexual partner or himself, depending on who has the allergy. The amount of semen is increased in a series of injections every 10 to 15 minutes over the span of several weeks until desensitization has occurred.
Hyposensitization therapy appears to have a high rate of success in those who undergo treatment. However, it can be costly, and many insurance plans do not pay for it. This procedure is only available at a few major medical centers. In addition, patients must engage in sexual intercourse two to three times per week to maintain the desensitization.
Condom use is an economical alternative for those with semen allergy. Use of a condom almost always eliminates symptoms associated with an allergy to semen. Condoms should be used before sexual activity begins, to prevent the allergic patient from being exposed to any semen leakage.
Sometimes, condom use itself is the problem. This is especially true for those who have latex allergies. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends polyurethane condoms as a good alternative to latex condoms. The female condom that is now available is also made of polyurethane. Lambskin condoms can be used as an alternative, but they do not protect against sexually transmitted diseases unless used in conjunction with a polyurethane or latex condom.
Spermicides and lubricants are frequently used with condoms, and these, especially spermicide, can trigger allergies. Those who react to such substances should be careful to purchase condoms that do not contain them, and to avoid spermicide use with diaphragms or other methods of birth control.
Patients allergic to lubricants may try a different brand of condoms that use a different type of lubricant. In addition, patients may try patch testing the skin prior to sexual activity to determine if a lubricant may cause an allergic reaction. Patch testing may be performed as part of an allergy screening process by the physician.
For women with semen allergies who are trying to become pregnant, physicians may recommend artificial insemination with sperm that has been washed free of semen proteins. This process lessens the likelihood of the semen causing an allergic reaction. In vitro fertilization is also an option.
Questions for your doctor
Preparing questions in advance can help patients to have more meaningful discussions with their physicians regarding their conditions. Patients may wish to ask their doctor the following questions regarding intimate allergies:
- Do my symptoms suggest an intimate allergy?
- What substances may be causing me to have this reaction?
- What tests will you use to determine the cause of my symptoms?
- Does my intimate allergy pose a danger to my overall health?
- What are my treatment options?
- I am allergic to latex condoms. Are there other types of condoms I can use without causing a reaction?
- Does having an allergy to one brand of lubricant mean that I am allergic to all brands?
- Am I a candidate for hyposensitization?
- Are there ways to lessen the likelihood of a reaction to semen while I am trying to become pregnant?