Allergic to Sex? Semen, Orgasm and Latex Can Be Culprits

PHOTO: Texas mother Leticia Ortega is allergic to sex.PlayCourtesy of Leticia Ortega
WATCH Big Mac Diet for Mom With Allergies

After 14 years of marriage, Leticia Ortega developed allergies, not just to pollen and grasses and even gluten -- but to sex.

"Well, technically, I am allergic to sperm," said the Fort Worth, Texas, 36-year-old. "My body reacts as if it's a foreign object and tries to get rid of it as soon as possible. I'm constantly at my gynecologist's office."

Every time Ortega has sex, she swells up. At first, she said she "learned to live with it," but her steady boyfriend worries that it's his fault.

Since her doctor diagnosed her with environmental allergies, Ortega has been taking medicine to control her sneezing and coughing, and that's take its toll, too.

"It dries up my nose and everything else," she said. "It's my body's reaction."

"It's a new relationship and he's really distraught," said Ortega, a financial coordinator for a pediatric dentist who has rekindled a high school love. "We're talking about marriage and he's so worried about it."

She had no problems in her previous marriage that produced three children, aged 13 to 21.

"The allergist said that I either became sensitive," she said, "or because I was married for so long, I was used to his sperm."

Allergies like Ortega's can stand in the way of a good sex life. Even the simple run-down congestion and drippy nose that accompanies nature's bounty can put a damper on spring love.

"I think that allergies affect sex because they make people feel miserable," said Jade Hoffman of San Diego, Calif. "People don't like to have sex if they are miserable. Also, it can make you insecure to constantly have red eyes and a runny nose. It makes you feel less sexual."

Other common culprits are condoms and sex toys. Those allergic to latex react to the proteins found in natural, a milky fluid that comes from the rubber tree.

A latex allergy can cause reactions ranging from itching and hives to difficulty breathing and deadly anaphylaxis, according to the Mayo Clinic. And repeated exposure can make it worse.

Luckily, Ortega isn't allergic to latex. In fact, condoms make her sex allergy go away, which was one of the first clues in diagnosing her problem.

She has seminal plasma hypersensitivity and the adverse symptoms are not from the sperm itself, but the proteins in the semen that carries it. She had the same reaction in another relationship just after her divorce.

"I went through all of this alone," she said. "I just want to help someone else."

Her condition is an under-recognized problem and affects about 20,000 to 40,000 women in the United States, according to Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, who specializes in allergies and immunology.

Some women have been known to sleep with their new husband for the first time and break out in hives. Women can experience abdominal swelling or a local reaction that they describe "like a needle sticking in to their vagina," according to Bernstein.

Sex Allergy Can Cause Debilitating Pain

Marie Heuttner of Humphrey, Nev., wrote that if she does not bathe right after sex, "My vaginal area will hurt like someone has kicked me so bad that I won't be able to walk."

Contact with her husband's sperm makes Kristen Zeman of Seaford, Del., "flare up and have serious pain for upwards of five or six hours."

Bernstein said that often women don't get a proper diagnosis and their doctors can confuse the condition with yeast or other vaginal infection.

"Women search the Internet for answers and most times they find me," he said.

The "gold standard" for treating semen allergies is to isolate the proteins in the man and do skin testing on the woman to determine which are to blame, according to Bernstein.

The woman can be injected with a small amount of the offending protein and desensitize her reaction, just as doctors do for bee sting allergies.

Interestingly, some research suggests that women who have been exposed to dogs, then go on to have their first sexual encounter with a man, can develop this seminal allergy.

"In the prostate, protein-specific antigen is homogenous with dog DNA," said Bernstein. "You look at the structure of the dog's PSA and the human's and they are cross-reactive."

Men tend not to have these allergic reactions to women, according to Bernstein, although he noted that scientists in The Netherlands have recently identified a post-orgasmic illness syndrome (POIS) that they claim may be a man's allergic reaction to his own semen.

Fertility is never affected, according to Bernstein, though getting couples back in bed together certainly helps with reproduction. Unfortunately, he admitted, "I'm no Dr. Ruth -- yet."

"I am very gratified when I get letters and thank you notes and photos of babies," said Bernstein. "It does create a lot of interpersonal stress and some people have been on the verge of divorce."