What to know about condoms and allergies
Latex comes from the milky sap of rubber trees. Manufacturers use latex in a variety of medical and commercial products, including condoms.
Natural rubber latex contains proteins that can cause allergic reactions. According to a 2016 review, these allergies may occur in around 4.3% of the world's population.
Latex allergies develop gradually through repeated exposure to latex products. The symptoms can vary greatly in severity.
This article describes the symptoms of a latex allergy and looks into other allergic reactions that can occur during or after sex. We also discuss treatment options and when to see a doctor.
A person can have an allergic reaction after touching latex products or inhaling latex particles. The allergic reaction can vary in severity, causing a wide range of symptoms.
Mild allergic reaction
A mild allergic reaction to latex can cause immediate symptoms, such as:
Moderate allergic reaction
An allergic reaction to latex may cause itchiness, swelling, or redness.
Symptoms of a moderate reaction to latex include:
Severe allergic reaction
A person with a severe allergy may experience a life threatening reaction called anaphylaxis.
During anaphylaxis, the immune system triggers the release of large numbers of inflammatory compounds called histamines. These compounds cause rapid and severe inflammation throughout the body.
According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
- low blood pressure
- tightness in the throat
- stomach pain
- breathing difficulties
- a rapid heartbeat
- a sense of doom
- cardiac arrest
The symptoms of anaphylaxis occur suddenly and can progress rapidly. People experiencing this require immediate treatment with epinephrine, a drug that counteracts allergic reactions.
A person should contact emergency services immediately if they or someone around them experiences anaphylaxis.
Diagnosing latex allergies
To diagnose a latex allergy, a doctor will review the person's medical history and symptoms.
The doctor may also ask about the person's job. People who regularly work with latex products have an increased risk of developing a latex allergy. Examples include healthcare workers and housekeeping personnel.
Additionally, an allergist may perform a skin prick test to check whether the person's skin reacts to the proteins in latex. They may also test the person's blood for the presence of latex antibodies.
Other types of condom-related allergy
If a person has an allergic reaction after using a condom, latex may not be the culprit.
Many condom manufacturers coat their products in substances such as spermicide and lubricant. These can contain chemicals that can irritate sensitive genital tissues.
A person can buy spermicide as a gel, foam, or suppository.
Spermicide is a form of birth control that prevents sperm from reaching the egg. Spermicide is available as a gel, foam, or suppository. People can also buy condoms coated in spermicide.
The active ingredient in many spermicides is nonoxynol-9, which kills sperm cells. When a person uses it frequently, however, it can cause irritation and soreness.
According to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO), frequent spermicide use may also increase a person's risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) — such as gonorrhea and chlamydia — because it may make the vaginal mucosa more susceptible to invasion from microorganisms.
Personal lubricant can enhance sexual experience, but some lubricants contain chemicals such as propylene glycol and glycerol. These can cause skin irritation in some people.
Some condoms have lubricant coating. People who are sensitive or allergic to compounds in lubricants should use nonlubricated condoms.
Some lubricants also contain spermicides. In a 2018 study, researchers found that spermicide-containing lubricants can disrupt the structure of vaginal tissue cells. This can increase the risk of infections, such as bacterial vaginosis and STIs.
Some people with a latex allergy are also allergic to certain fruits. The name for this is latex-fruit syndrome.
The crossover occurs because certain fruits contain proteins that are similar to those in latex.
According to a 2016 review, people with latex allergies have a 35% risk of an allergy to one or more of the following fruits:
For the same reason, though less commonly, people with latex allergies are also allergic to peanuts, chestnuts, or both.
The treatment for an allergy depends on its severity. In all cases, people should avoid exposure to anything that triggers a reaction.
Anyone who is sensitive to an ingredient in a lubricant or spermicide should look for products that do not contain the ingredient. People can also try natural lubricants, such as aloe vera gel.
Also, some condoms are made from materials other than latex, such as polyurethane or lambskin.
Individuals who experience severe allergic reactions may need to carry injectable epinephrine. If they have been exposed to an allergen, they should self-inject the epinephrine while waiting for emergency help to arrive.
When to see a doctor
People who have unusual vaginal or penile discharge after using a latex condom should speak to a doctor.
See a doctor if symptoms of an allergic reaction persist for several days after the last exposure to the suspected trigger. Persistent irritation can indicate an infection or another underlying issue.
Symptoms of an infection, such as an STI, can include:
- unusual vaginal or penile discharge
- frequent urination that may cause a painful burning sensation
- foul smelling urine
- pain in the stomach or lower back
- nausea or vomiting
- a fever
A doctor can identify the underlying cause with a physical exam and diagnostic tests. If a person has a genital infection, the doctor will likely prescribe a course of antibiotics.
Anyone who experiences a severe allergic reaction should seek medical attention immediately.
Latex proteins and substances in lubricants and spermicides can all cause allergic reactions. These allergies can significantly affect a person's sexual experience. In severe cases, they may even be life threatening.
It can help to check the labels on products for use during sex because some contain known allergens. To help prevent future allergic reactions, a person can try products that do not contain these ingredients.
A doctor can perform tests to confirm whether a person has a particular allergy. These tests involve analyzing a blood sample or exposing the skin to potential allergens.