You've probably heard you can be allergic to rubbers, but how do you know if this applies to you? Doctors give the 411.
If you practice safe sex, condoms are probably part of your regular routine. And like most people, your condom-related thoughts may start once sex begins and end when the deed is done. But for those allergic to condoms, it's an entirely different story. While you’ve probably heard it’s possible to be allergic to rubbers, how do you know if this is a problem for you? Doctors say it’s not as easy to figure out as it sounds.
Although people can be allergic to lambskin and other forms of condoms, the most common condom allergy is due to latex, women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., tells SELF. Luckily, it’s not a huge issue for most women. “It’s not extremely common, but it happens,” says Wider. “According to the American Latex Allergy Association, less than one percent of the general population in the United States has an allergy to latex—but that's still roughly three million people.”
The most common signs that you could be allergic to latex are vaginal irritation, burning, and itching, Jonathan Schaffir, M.D., an ob-gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. “It is also possible to have a more severe form of allergy that leads to anaphylaxis, which involves system-wide swelling, dropping blood pressure, and difficulty breathing,” he says. “That would be rare, but needs immediate medical attention.”
But an itchy, burning sensation in your vagina could be a sign of several other things, which is why Maureen Whelihan, M.D., an ob/gyn at the Center for Sexual Health & Education, tells SELF that a latex condom allergy can be tough to diagnose. “Women can have irritation down there for a variety of reasons, and they all think it’s a yeast infection,” she says. “But when we go through the list of things that cause irritation of the vulva, we ask, ‘Do you use latex condoms?’”
So, if you're feeling…off in your vaginal area, how do you know if it's actually an allergy? “The biggest tip-off that a woman has a latex allergy is in the timing,” Schaffir says. “If she consistently has a reaction following sex with latex condoms—usually within a day and lasting one to four days—and the symptoms are not present otherwise or after sex without the latex condom, then an allergy should be suspected.” Wider also points out that there seems to be a link between having a latex allergy and reactions to certain foods, like avocados, kiwis, and bananas, likely because they have similar proteins to the ones in natural latex. If those foods give you trouble, too, it’s cause for suspicion.
Of course, you can switch to polyurethane condoms, which protect against pregnancy and STIs as well as latex condoms do, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Lambskin condoms aren't recommended for STI and HIV prevention because of their larger pores, but they do prevent against pregnancy.) But before opting for polyurethane rubbers, you can try latex condoms that don't contain the spermicide Nonoxynol-9, says Whelihan. It's commonly used in condoms, and it could be the real source of your allergy, she explains.
No matter what, if you’re having a reaction, feel like your condoms are to blame, and your ob/gyn has ruled out other sources of irritation, it’s a good idea to bring in an allergist who can do a blood test to determine your latex sensitivity, Wider says.
And what to do if the symptoms are flaring up right now, leaving you in need of some relief ASAP? While a vaginal reaction to latex condoms will usually go away when you stop using them, Whelihan says you can use hydrocortisone cream down there to help with the symptoms while you wait it out.