Is this common?
If you experience frequent and unexplained itching after sex, it could be a sign of an allergic reaction. You may be allergic to the condom — or any added ingredient, like spermicide — that you or your partner used.
Although it’s possible to be allergic to any type of condom, latex is the most common culprit. Between 1 and 6 percent of Americans are allergic (or sensitive to) latex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Most latex allergies develop slowly, occurring after years of repeated exposure. They’re also far more common among healthcare workers. As many as 8 to 12 percent of American healthcare workers are allergic to latex, estimates the CDC.
Keep reading to learn more about the symptoms of allergic reaction, alternative products to try, and when to see your doctor.
What are the symptoms?
In most cases, people who are allergic to latex or other materials will experience a localized reaction. This means that symptoms will only appear in places where your skin came into direct contact with the condom.
Symptoms of a localized allergic reaction include:
- a rash that resembles a poison ivy rash
In severe cases, a full-body, or systemic, reaction is possible. Women are more likely to experience a systemic reaction. This is because the mucus membranes in the vagina absorb latex proteins faster than the membranes on the penis.
Symptoms of a systemic allergic reaction include:
- hives in areas that didn’t come into contact with the condom
- swelling in areas that didn’t come into contact with the condom
- runny nose or congestion
- watery eyes
- scratchy throat
- flushing of the face
In rare cases, anaphylaxis is possible. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction. Seek emergency medical attention if you have:
- difficulty breathing
- difficulty swallowing
- swelling of the mouth, throat, or face
Why does this happen?
Natural latex — which differs from the synthetic latex in paint — is derived from the rubber tree. It contains several proteins that are known to trigger an allergic reaction.
If you have a latex allergy, your immune system mistakes these proteins for harmful invaders and releases antibodies to fight them off. This immune response may lead to itchiness, inflammation, or other allergy symptoms.
About 30 to 50 percent of people with latex allergies are also allergic to certain foods, according to a 2002 study. Some plant-based foods contain proteins that are structurally similar to those found in latex. This means that they may trigger a similar immune response.
You may be more likely to develop a latex allergy if you’re allergic to:
- passion fruit
- bell pepper
Although latex allergies are the most common, it’s possible to be allergic to other condom materials.
The premise remains the same: If the given material contains one or more irritating compounds, your immune system will deploy antibodies to fight against them. This can result in a localized or full-body allergic reaction.
What can I do?
Although most condoms are made with latex, there are many alternatives available. Discuss your allergy with your sexual partners and choose the best non-latex option for both of you.
Made from plastic, polyurethane condoms effectively prevent pregnancy and protect you and your partner from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). They come in both male and female varieties.
Polyurethane is thinner than latex. It conducts heat well, so they can feel fairly natural.
But polyurethane doesn’t stretch the same way as latex, so these condoms may not fit as well. Because of this, they may be more likely to slip off or break.
If you want to give this option a go, Trojan Supra Bareskin condoms are a popular choice. This male condom is only available in one “standard” size, so make sure you and your partner check the fit before use.
Unlike other options, polyurethane condoms are compatible with most lubricants. This includes lubes made from:
These condoms are the newest development in non-latex protection. Some people even prefer them to latex.
Polyisoprene is a synthetic rubber. This material conducts heat better than latex, which can make for a more natural feel. It also stretches better than polyurethane.
Polyisoprene condoms protect against STIs and pregnancy, but they’re only available for men. They can be used with water- or silicone-based lubricants.
Try Skyn’s original condom, which is made with their patented technology. Durex Real Feelnon-latex condoms are also made with polyisoprene.
Lambskin condoms were used long before the development of latex.
Made from the intestinal lining of sheep, these condoms are “all natural.” This results in heightened sensitivity, leading many people to say they can’t feel the condom at all.
However, lambskin condoms are porous, and viruses can pass right through them.
Although they can effectively protect against pregnancy, lambskin condoms don’t prevent the spread of STIs. They’re recommended for monogamous couples who have tested negative for STIs.
Lambskin condoms are only available in male varieties.
Trojan’s Naturalamb condoms are the only brand available in the United States. They come in one “standard” size, but users report that they’re actually very large. Make sure you and your partner check the fit before use.
It could also be the spermicide (nonoxynol-9) on the condom
Spermicides are commonly used in gels, suppositories, and condom lubricants.
Nonoxynol-9 is the most common active ingredient in spermicide. It’s known to cause irritation in some people, especially when used frequently.
Doctors used to believe that spermicide, which kills sperm, could help protect against pregnancy and certain STIs.
Experts now agree that condoms lubricated with spermicide are no more effective at preventing pregnancy than other condoms.
Research has also proven that spermicide isn’t effective against STIs. In fact, frequent spermicide use may actually increase your risk of contracting HIV or another infection.
Although spermicide is no longer used on most condoms, it hasn’t been banned across the board. This means that some condom manufacturers may still add spermicide to their product. These products are labeled accordingly.
If you think spermicide is to blame, switch to a regular latex condom. Make sure it’s labeled “lubricated,” but not “lubricated with spermicide.” This male condom from Trojan is a popular pick.
It could even be the lubricant that you’re using
Personal lubricants are designed to enhance sexual pleasure, but they contain a wide range of chemicals and preservatives that can cause irritation. This includes glycerin, parabens, and propylene glycol.
In addition to irritation and itching, these ingredients can cause an overgrowth of bacteria. This can result in a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis.
Most people pay little attention to the ingredients in their lubricants. However, if you’re experiencing irritation or frequent infections, you may want to look for something more natural.
Natural lubricants aren’t compatible with all condoms or toys, so make sure you read the packaging before use. Your doctor can also answer any questions you have about appropriate and effective use.
If you don’t want to use any added lube, make sure you’re using a non-lubricated condom.
When to see your doctor
If your symptoms last for more than a day or two — or persist after trying alternative options — see your doctor. Your symptoms may be the result of an infection or other underlying condition.
Your doctor can perform a physical exam and run diagnostic tests to check for common STIs and bacterial infections. Most genital infections can be cleared with a course of antibiotics. But if left untreated, certain infections can lead to severe complications, such as infertility.
If your tests come back negative, your doctor may refer you to an allergist. Your allergist will perform a patch test to help identify the substance that’s triggering your symptoms.