Latex is a mysterious material. Made from the milky sap of rubber trees, the stretchy substance is to thank for your favorite leopard leotard, self-bought birthday balloons, and last but definitely not least, safe sex. However, for a select few, latex is no lucky charm- To the contrary, it can be a real pain in the… well, let’s just say that coming into contact with latex can be less than a luxurious experience for ladies with an allergy to latex.
The Blame Game
Diagnosing certain allergies can seem like a pretty straightforward process. Stuffy nose after drinking a glass of milk? Lactose intolerance. Swollen tongue after a PB&J sandwich? Peanut allergy. Bloated after bread? Celiac disease. Hives after hunting for honeycomb? Allergic to Bees. But discomfort after intercourse? Ohhh, hell no.
S.T.D. slide projections from sixth-grade sex-ed flash before your eyes. Every past sexual partner is now officially a potential perpetrator. A little feminine-irritation, and before you know it, you’re google-imaging leprosy, side-eyeing your hubby, and making an overdue appointment at the Gyno for like 8:00 a.m. yesterday. All of the above is understandable, not even remotely rational, but understandable nonetheless, because ain’t nobody got time for lady-part-problems.
There’s one confounding coochie-culprit in particular that really knows how to fly under the radar, needlessly causing women to suffer from continued feminine discomfort, as well as experience undue stress over questions regarding what exactly seems to be the problem, and no, it’s not your leopard leotard; it’s latex. But we should also talk about that leotard at some point.
A Condom in a Haystack
An allergy to latex can be uniquely difficult to diagnose due to several factors; not only is it easily mistaken for many other, far more common issues with similar symptoms, like S.T.D.s, yeast, and vaginal bacterial infections, but it’s also challenging to pin this particular problem down because of its somewhat infrequent occurrence, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, affects 1% of the population.
And while an allergy to latex may not be quite as ‘popular’ as a peanuts allergy per se, sexually active women who practice safe sex with latex condoms are often left scratching both their heads and their hoo-has post-hanky-panky.
Although condoms aren’t the only product that often leave unknowing latex allergy-sufferers perplexed. Dr. David Ahdoot, M.D., FACOG, Board-certified OB-GYN, assistant clinical professor at UCLA, and nationally recognized robotic surgeon explains how, similarly to condoms, latex gloves can also pose a problem when it comes to diagnosing allergies in patients. “If, for example, someone does have a latex allergy and they don’t recognize it because they don’t use condoms, the only time they’re ever exposed to latex is at a medical facility or in a doctor’s office and they wouldn’t otherwise know. If you touch someone’s hands, face, or chest, you can visibly see that they will turn red but you can’t really see this on the vaginal area- the only symptoms to be observed are symptoms that are felt. This is another point where an allergic reaction to latex can be confused with a number of different things.”
A Slippery Spectrum
Like any allergy, the severity of latex allergies varies from person to person, with symptoms existing along a spectrum: some mild, some not so much. A mild latex allergy can cause symptoms including itching, rashes, hives, sneezing, runny nose, itchy throat, watery eyes, wheezing, heavy breathing, and coughing. And yes, you read that correctly, these are supposedly the mild symptoms.
More severe symptoms of a latex allergy can include trouble breathing, swelling, nausea, vomiting, low blood pressure, dizziness, disorientation, unconsciousness, even anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction that can include all of the above plus difficulty breathing, and shock. If not treated immediately with a dose of epinephrine, anaphylaxis can ultimately result in death. So yeah, pretty darn serious.
A Date With Your Doctor
If you experience unexplained discomfort down south after using latex condoms or post-doctor’s visit then it’s probably time to take a trip into the Gyno, where your doctor will most likely refer you to an allergist (after first confirming that you’re up-to-date on your annual pap and S.T.D. screenings because duh). Once any red flags suggesting non-allergy-related causes have been eliminated, an allergist will perform a latex skin prick test along with any other skin tests you may need to diagnose or rule out additional allergies and also to further determine whether you’re allergic to natural rubber latex or the chemical compounds utilized in latex products.
Your doctor may prescribe a mild hydrocortisone cream for your temporary discomfort, and after a few days, you should be good to go, barring any repeat offenses (so don’t go getting any bright ideas, ladies- It’s a cream, not a cure). However, chances are, a good sitz bath or two will be all you need to calm things down a bit ‘downstairs.’
Interestingly, there appears to be a link between latex allergies and certain food allergies, such as avocados, chestnuts, kiwis, and bananas. Most likely, this commonality is the result of the similar proteins found in both these foods and in natural latex. If you’re allergic to any of these foods and also happen to experience vaginal irritation after contact with latex, then you may want to have your nether regions checked out for allergies.
Polyurethane condoms are composed of thin plastic and offer similar protection against pregnancy and S.T.D.s as latex condoms. But on the downside, they’re a tad more expensive and, according to the Cleveland Clinic, may break more easily.
Polyisoprene condoms are made of synthetic rubber, and, according to the C.D.C., they are also more prone to breakage than latex condoms (wah-wah).
Single-Use Internal condoms are internal female condoms that are approved by the F.D.A. and are made from synthetic latex, which is generally considered safe for latex-allergy sufferers. This modern method gets points for giving women the prerogative to practice safe-sex sans any male-assistance. However, their higher failure rates compared to external condoms cut a few of those points off the top of its final score.
Lambskin condoms aren’t made out of lambskin, so don’t freak out. They’re actually made of sheep intestines, so yeah, actually go ahead and freak out for a second before quickly getting over it because, whether you’re a ride-or-die vegan or a fast-foodie-for-life, there’s a high likelihood that you both use and consume products containing equally ‘gross’ (if not grosser) ingredients on the daily, just keepin’ it real.
These baaaaad boys are highly effective in preventing pregnancy. However, they’re not-so-effective when it comes to preventing H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases. The C.D.C. explains that this lack of protection is due to microscopic pores in their material, so Lambskin condoms are an option that should be reserved for women who prefer protection from pregnancy but don’t require protection from sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Therefore, women in monogamous relationships who prefer to avoid pregnancy (A.K.A. most married moms) are ideal candidates for this latex condom alternatives.
Also known as “Natural Membrane Condoms,” a term coined by the medical community and correspondingly cringed at by every member of every other community known to man, do arguably have their advantages. Lambskin condoms are known for increased sensitivity and natural feel compared to latex condoms.
Not to mention, Lambskin condom’s ability to transmit body heat is greater than that of latex condoms, you know, just in case that’s what you’re into- Hey, no judgment here- My husband will personally vouch for the fact that nobody comes in between my lower back and my heating pad at night, nobody.
And condoms aren’t the only product you can change to avoid discomfort and irritation resulting from from a latex allergy. Dr. Ahdoot explains that while treating patients with latex allergies at either of his two Southern California private practices, located in Burbank and Palmdale, “everybody in the exam room- the doctor and the nurses- use only latex-free products, even latex-free condoms are used on the transvaginal ultrasound machines .”
Therefore, in addition to changing your condom-of-choice, also ask your medical provider to exclusively utilize non-latex products while examining you. And if your doctor can’t accommodate this reasonable request, well, you can always change your doctor, too.
So while the process certainly has its hurdles, know that diagnosing a latex allergy can in itself be half the battle. Once the issue has been established, options exist and accommodations are available to help make the rest of your journey a little easier and a lot less uncomfortable.