Despite what you may have heard, a latex condom allergy is a real thing—it’s just not super common. A latex allergy is only thought to affect around 1% of the general population, according to the Cleveland Clinic, making it pretty damn rare. “It’s not extremely common, but it does happen,” women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D.
For what it’s worth, having a latex allergy can cause issues with using latex gloves, rubber bands, and balloons, but this allergy tends to get the most attention when it comes to using safe-sex products like condoms. Keep in mind that dental dams are also often made out of latex, so they can also cause latex allergy symptoms.
Because latex condom allergy symptoms can be similar to other issues down there (hello, yeast infections!), this health condition can be tricky to diagnose. Keep reading to learn exactly how to figure out if you have a latex condom allergy, plus which latex-free options are available to you instead.
What a Latex Allergy Is
Latex is a fluid that comes from rubber trees, which is where most natural rubber is derived, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (AAAAI). Lots of things are made from latex including gloves, balloons, and rubber bands, per the AAAAI. Oh, and, you know, the most common type of condom.
A latex allergy is exactly what you’d expect: an allergic reaction caused by an exposure to latex. Allergies happen when your immune system overreacts to an otherwise harmless substance, leading to allergy symptoms. More on that specific process in a bit.
Latex Allergy Symptoms
Latex allergy symptoms usually show up in the nose, lungs, throat, sinuses, ears, lining of the stomach, or on the skin, the AAAAI says. But if you’re having a reaction to a latex condom you can also have symptoms in and around your vagina.
Latex condom allergies (and latex allergies in general) exist on a spectrum, according to the Mayo Clinic. If you’re mildly allergic to latex you might experience symptoms like:
A rash or hives
If your latex allergy is more severe, you could experience these symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic:
A runny nose
Itchy and watery eyes
A scratchy throat
Wheezing (an abnormal whistling sound when you breathe)
In the most severe latex allergy case, coming into contact with this substance can lead to anaphylaxis, which is a potentially life-threatening reaction, Jonathan Schaffir, M.D., an ob-gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. Per the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of anaphylaxis include:
Lower than usual blood pressure
A quick, weak pulse
When it comes to a latex condom allergy, “[anaphylaxis] would be rare but needs immediate medical attention,” Dr. Schaffir says.
A latex condom allergy can be tough to diagnose, Maureen Whelihan, M.D., an ob-gyn at the Center for Sexual Health & Education, tells SELF. “Women can have irritation down there for a variety of reasons,” she says. “But when we go through the list of things that cause irritation of the vulva, we ask, ‘Do you use latex condoms?’”
How Long Do Symptoms Last?
It depends on how severe of a reaction you had and how it’s been treated, if at all. People with a severe allergic reaction to latex may need to either carry injectable epinephrine (adrenaline) with them at all times, or go to the E.R. for an immediate injection of epinephrine, the Mayo Clinic says. That injection should help stop your symptoms quickly. If you have a less severe reaction, your doctor may prescribe antihistamines or corticosteroids, which can help control your symptoms.
In the case of condoms, it can vary. “If you consistently have 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,” Dr. Schaffir says.
Why Does a Latex Allergy Happen?
When you’re exposed to latex and you have a latex allergy, it causes a chain reaction in your body that starts in your immune system, the AAAAI explains. Your immune system, which controls how your body defends itself, overreacts by producing antibodies called Immunoglobulin E (IgE) that can react with contaminating proteins found in latex. The antibodies then travel to cells that release chemicals, causing an allergic reaction in your body.
It’s unclear why, exactly, some people develop a latex allergy, but the Mayo Clinic says that repeated exposure may increase sensitivity to the material. So people with spina bifida (who are often exposed to latex), health care workers, those who have been through several surgeries or medical procedures, and rubber industry workers are at the highest risk of having a latex allergy.
Just a heads up: There seems to be a link between having a latex allergy and reactions to certain foods, like avocados, chestnuts, kiwis, and bananas. It’s likely because they have similar proteins to the ones in natural latex, according to the AAAAI. If those foods give you trouble, there’s a chance you could have an issue with latex.
Latex Allergy Treatment
There’s no cure for a latex allergy—instead, people who have severe reactions need to avoid the rubber, the AAAAI says. Still, there are a few things you can do if you accidentally come into contact with a latex condom.
If your symptoms are mild, an antihistamine or corticosteroid may help, the Mayo Clinic says. Your doctor may also prescribe epinephrine to carry with you, just in case you have a severe reaction in the future, the AAAAI says.
If you have a severe allergy, it’s important to tell your family, any work or school officials who should know, and health care providers, and to have an action plan in place that clearly spells out what to do if you’ve been exposed to latex, the AAAAI says.
And what should you do if the symptoms are flaring up right now, leaving you in need of some relief ASAP? While a vulvar or vaginal reaction to latex condoms will usually go away when you stop using them, Dr. Whelihan says you may be able to use a mild hydrocortisone cream down there to help with the symptoms while you wait it out. Just be sure not to get any of the cream inside your actual vagina, where it might just cause even more irritation. You could also consider taking a sitz bath, as in, dunking everything below your hips in lukewarm or cool water to help ease irritation around your vagina or vulva.
If you know you have a latex allergy, doing your best to avoid latex in all forms is important. But that can be tricky if condoms are a necessary part of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections for you. The good news: Instead of latex, you can find condoms made from plastic, synthetic rubber, or other materials. Here are some alternatives:
Polyurethane condoms: Made from thin plastic, these offer similar protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections as latex condoms, the Mayo Clinic says. The downsides: They tend to be more expensive than latex condoms, and they may also break more easily, the Cleveland Clinic says. Dental dams are also often available in polyurethane, FYI.
Polyisoprene condoms: These are made from synthetic rubber, which can be helpful if you have a latex condom allergy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, they’re also prone to breaking more easily than latex condoms, the CDC says.
Latex-free internal condoms: The FC2 condom is the only internal condom approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This condom, which has one closed end and one open end, goes into the vagina instead of over a penis. It’s made from synthetic latex, so it’s safe for people with latex allergies. Unfortunately, internal condoms have slightly higher failure rates than external condoms. The best research available, including a study from the National Institutes of Health,
suggests that when using internal condoms perfectly every single time, 5 out of 100 people with uteri will get pregnant each year as opposed to the 2 out of 100 who will get pregnant each year when using external condoms perfectly. If we’re talking typical use (which considers human error, like putting a condom on incorrectly), 21 out of 100 people with uteri will get pregnant each year when using internal condoms, and 18 out of 100 will get pregnant each year when using external condoms.
Lambskin condoms: These are made from sheep intestines, per the Cleveland Clinic, so they won’t trigger a reaction in people who are allergic to latex. They can be effective when it comes to preventing pregnancy, but because they have small holes in them, you can’t rely on them to block the spread of STIs, the CDC says. You should only use lambskin condoms if you aren’t at risk of STIs, like if you’re in a mutually monogamous relationship and have both been tested.
When to See a Doctor
If you’re having a reaction on your vulva or in your vagina, feel like latex condoms are to blame, and your ob-gyn has ruled out other sources of irritation, you may want to see an allergist who can do allergy testing to determine your latex sensitivity, Dr. Wider says. If you can see your doctor while you’re having a mild reaction, the Mayo Clinic says that’s even better—it can help with your diagnosis.
Once you get a proper diagnosis, your doctor will recommend a treatment plan for the future.
However you choose to handle a latex condom allergy, we’re wishing you and all of your parts good luck.