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Yes, You Can Be Allergic to Semen

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Photo: Getty Images / Julia Simina, Olga Zarytska

And you thought the worst of your problems was whether to spit or swallow: A woman in southeast Spain reportedly had an allergic reaction to her partner's semen after oral sex—bad enough to send her to the ER.

As outlined in BMJ Case Reports, the 31-year-old woman arrived at the hospital vomiting profusely, had shortness of breath, and was covered in hives. Doctors diagnosed her with a moderate anaphylactic reaction and, since she hadn't eaten or taken anything out of the ordinary, eventually deduced this was from unprotected oral sex with her partner.

It's called seminal plasma hypersensitivity and yes, it's a real thing: "This is very rare, but you can be allergic to your partner's semen," says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist/immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network in New York.

Usually (among the rare cases, that is), suffers are actually reacting to a pre-existing allergen—like food or a medication—that's traveling through the semen, says Dr. Parikh. And that's what happened here: Because the women had swallowed semen before with no problems and her partner had been taking an antibiotic that contained penicillin, the docs deduced that she was actually allergic to his medication.

But some people are actually hypersensitive to the proteins in semen itself, says Amy Shah, M.D., an allergy immunologist in Phoenix. Specialized offices like Dr. Shah's can help women who suffer from this allergy and are trying to conceive. The process involves a desensitization procedure wherein very tiny amounts of his semen are injected into her vagina so her body becomes conditioned to the irritant—and won't freak out when it's baby-making day (or any day for that matter).

Because yes—an allergic reaction to semen will take place wherever the spunk enters your body, be it mouth or vagina. And it can cause anything from burning and itching to a rash, to full-blown anaphylactic shock, says Dr. Parikh. It typically happens within 30 to 60 minutes of exposure. (Related: Asking for a Friend: What's Causing My Itchy Vagina?)

But before you go and declare yourself allergic to sex, keep in mind that there could be other more common excuses for your symptoms, like an infection. Semen allergies (also referred to as sperm allergies) are pretty uncommon, but not unheard of. One 2011 study estimated that some 40,000 women in the U.S. could be affected. If you have a reaction every time you have sex without a condom, and never when you have sex with a condom, that's a sign that a semen allergy might be to blame, says Alyssa Dweck, M.S, M.D., FACOG, coauthor of The Complete A to Z for Your V: A Women's Guide to Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Your Vagina. (Err, you should probably take this time to read up on eight scary condom mistakes you could be making.) Dr. Dweck says that most of the women she sees in her office with a semen allergy assume—without ever being tested—that their irritation was caused by a yeast infection. (Now's the time to read up on the five biggest yeast infection myths.)

When it comes to irritation from semen, you could have a mild sensitivity or a full-blown allergy, says Dr. Dweck. What's more, women who suffer from semen allergies experience varying degrees of severity in their symptoms. The most serious but rare cases can cause wheezing or difficulty breathing, which is what happened to this woman. More commonly, women will have a local reaction with a rash, hives, redness, or swelling that lasts about an hour after having sex. Taking an antihistamine before sex can help guard against a reaction for women who experience more severe symptoms, but using a condom is the best way to prevent these uncomfortable side effects, says Dr. Dweck.

Other disturbing facts: Semen allergies can develop over time, and just like you can be allergic to walnuts but not peanuts, you can be allergic to one man's semen and not another's. "It's partner-related," says Dr. Dweck. "So you can have sex with one person and have no trouble, but then have sex with another man whose semen causes some sort of a reaction." 

Bottom line: If you have a severe food or medication allergy, make sure your partner knows and uses barrier protection when your allergen enters their body. Now that's what we call safe sex.

For more answers to your uncomfortable sex questions, check out Is It Possible for a Guy's Penis Size to Be Too Big? and The Real Reason You Can't Orgasm During Sex.

 

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