If you have a vagina, chances are you've experienced feeling like it's on fire—not in the sexy way, but in the make-you-want-to-straddle-a-slab-of-ice-naked way. When the burning sensation is accompanied by an itch that won't quit, many of us will self-diagnose a yeast infection and head to the pharmacy. But your vaginal flora might not actually be to blame.
If you use condoms and are experiencing the aforementioned symptoms you, like 4 percent of the general population, may have a latex allergy.
Latex sensitivity comes in three flavors: life-threatening, misunderstood, and bearable. The first, Type 1, is a true allergy to the protein found in rubber trees that latex is made from. This serious allergy can lead to trouble breathing, hives, and even anaphylactic shock.
The second isn't an allergy to the latex protein but a sensitivity to one of the chemicals or adhesives used in the production of latex products. The final category, "irritant dermatitis," shows up as a rash or patch of dry skin that's usually not itchy and is typically caused by repeat contact with latex. (Think nurses who wear surgical gloves every day or cafeteria employees). However, this kind of irritant dermatitis can lead to a full-blown latex allergy.
A mild allergic reaction to latex condoms can feel similar to a yeast infection: There's the itching and burning, maybe some swelling. This is why a latex allergy is often left untreated (my vagina and I suffered for years before my doctor and I finally made the connection).
"People who have a latex allergy or sensitivity are often misdiagnosed and treated for recurrent infections instead," says Jessica Shepherd, M.D., an OB/GYN and founder of Her Viewpoint.
How to Tell If It's Really a Latex Allergy
If you suspect an allergy, there are additional symptoms to pay attention to: Look for cross-reactions with other latex products, such as gloves, balloons, and rubber bands. In my case, I discovered a scaly patch of skin on my hand after wearing latex gloves at work and a rash between my toes after wearing my gym shoes.
Sensitivity to certain foods is common as well. "I've often seen a cross-reaction to kiwi, chestnut, banana, and avocado," says Cliff Bassett, M.D., author of The New Allergy Solution. These foods contain a protein similar to the one found in natural latex and can provoke an allergic reaction.
Another giveaway is timing. "Symptoms occur during or soon after intercourse," Shepherd says. It can take another day or two for delayed symptoms like a rash to show up, but, unlike with a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis, the trigger will always be contact with latex.
However, sometimes the problem isn't with the condom itself, but with what comes on it: If you're using pre-lubricated condoms, especially those that use a spermicidal lube, the lubrication may be the culprit. Try using non-lubricated condoms (and a bottle of lube that you know you're not allergic to).
But if you're experiencing severe allergy symptoms, like trouble breathing, you should go straight to a hospital—possibly inside an ambulance. "Symptoms may be mild and quickly advance to more life-threatening forms, including wheezing, trouble breathing, and anaphylaxis," cautions Basset. If you find yourself in that kind of a state, it's not time to mess around.
What to Do About It
And if the problem persists, you'll have to stop by your gynecologist's office. The only way to truly rule out either a stubborn yeast infection or a latex allergy is to test for it. "You'll need to see a specialist in vulvovaginal disorders or an allergist to get to the bottom of the situation, once your doctor has ruled out other causes," Shepherd says. If it turns out that latex is the culprit, you have a few options (other than abstinence, which… nope).
"Polyurethane condoms are thinner but stronger than latex, and they transfer heat more efficiently, which may enhance sensation," Shephard says. And there are newer polyisoprene condoms, which are a more flexible option that many find to be a comfortable fit (and don't make a potentially distracting crinkling sound the way polyurethane ones do).