Does using condoms pose a risk if I am mildly allergic to latex?
July 31, 2013 4:44 PM   Subscribe

I have a mild but irritating latex allergy. Does long-term, regular latex condom use pose a threat to my health?

Bandages which contain latex leave angry red wheals wherever the adhesive contacts my skin, and latex gloves give me something resembling contact dermatitis if I wear them for more than an hour or two (I used to work in a lab where gloves where it was common to wear gloves for the better part of the day). Condoms also give me a rash, mostly under my foreskin, but I can prevent this by washing any skin which the condom contacted after sex.

This is becoming an issue in my relationship with my girlfriend--she insists on condoms, and refuses to consider any other form of birth control, for various reasons. I'm sympathetic, mostly: condoms are cheap (though I'm willing to split the cost of something else), mess-free (for her, at least), and don't require any contact with an ob/gyn. And, generally, I get that all of the other options are a responsibility she has to shoulder alone. Finally, I also understand why she would prefer not to use hormonal birth control, and fully support her decision not to. But she also rejects the possibility of an IUD, diaphragm, cervical cap, or some kind of fertility awareness.

I've let the issue slide, partially because the "but I'm allergic" line is such a classic condom dodge. But I really am allergic. So, my question is: if I continue to use condoms, am I running a meaningful risk of developing a dangerous allergy? If so, how does this risk compare to the risk that other forms of birth control could pose to her health? Is this something that I should insist on?

[I'm aware of non-latex condoms, but my experience with them has been less than positive. If you have a recommendation for the latex-beating non-latex condom, though, I'm listening. STDs aren't an issue.]
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If I was allergic to latex, there would be no way I would ever get a latex condom close to my junk.

I don't believe there's any proof either way on whether repeated exposure can worsen an allergy. I'd guess that the skin under your foreskin is more sensitive and is showing a reaction quick enough.

I would try out every non-latex condom until you find one you like best. Get a sampler pack!
posted by dobi at 4:56 PM on July 31, 2013 [5 favorites]

polyurethane condoms. My partner and I prefer them to latex, neither one of us has an allergy.
posted by inertia at 4:58 PM on July 31, 2013 [6 favorites]

Would a female condom be feasible? You don't mention the specific reasons why she's unwilling to try nonhormonal methods like a cervical cap, but female condoms have the benefit of not requiring a doctor's visit and being relatively easy to use, and are usually latex free (but without the "goddamn it, stay there" issues that sometimes come up with plastic-based male condoms)

I think that if the alternative is you jumping up and running to the bathroom immediately after sex so that you don't get painful hives on your junk, then your girlfriend needs to be a bit more willing to compromise on this.
posted by kagredon at 4:58 PM on July 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

I just googled "latex allergies get worse over time." The results include recommendations from a variety of medical and allergy awareness websites saying that latex allergies can indeed be progressive, so if you have a mild allergy and are repeatedly exposed, the symptoms can worsen. Several of those links also talked about how latex allergies can become life-threatening, and they can cause anaphylaxis and other very serious, dangerous symptoms, which can develop suddenly and with no warning. In other words, if you're allergic to latex, you could put on a condom one day and your throat could close up and you could die.

There is absolutely no way in hell I'd use latex condoms if I were you. And I would not have sex with anyone who suggested that I should, or who was unwilling to work with me and put in some effort on her own to protect my health and safety.
posted by decathecting at 5:05 PM on July 31, 2013 [12 favorites]

Is this something that I should insist on?

Yeah, I really can't see insisting on condoms when condom use meant a rash on genitalia, even if quick washing off would... It's not clear what the point of a monogamous sexual relationship is here. If you were using a condom because you wanted to bang somebody as a one-off or wanted to bang them because you wanted to bang and that was it, different answer; but here it's "girlfriend," and this level of unnecessary crappy in a sex life and this much lack of concern for you is not okay.

No shit it's an issue in the relationship, and this has all the hallmarks of the Ask MeFi anonymous relationship question that is about something other than the question, and all the hallmarks of one that will meet with a good bit of "DTMFA."

The only possible excuse I can think of here is that you are both really, really young and she is ill at ease with her own 'junk' and thus has difficulty considering somebody else's, and/or doing rational things about seeing a gynecologist and using another birth control method. Outside of that, this is an unusual level of don't-care-about-you for any meaningful partnership. Or, long shot: she's harbouring a disease that can be passed along via sex, can't deal with discussing it? Either option makes her a lousy choice for a person to have sex with.
posted by kmennie at 5:31 PM on July 31, 2013 [3 favorites]

Allergies can very abruptly become life-threatening, my doc told me years ago when I asked if I really had to stop eating shellfish when my symptoms were pretty mild.

Tell her you really don't want to put her in the position of going from sexyfuntimes to OMG 911, and you sure as heck don't want to be there either.
posted by rtha at 5:37 PM on July 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think she owes it to you to make an appointment with an OB/GYN to actually talk through her options and get any misconceptions or concerns she has addressed by a professional. You owe it to her to order a sampler pack of as many different brands of non-latex condoms as you can find, try them all, and see if any are acceptable. This is exactly the kind of situation that is best addressed by good faith efforts from both ends to find a solution, and washing your dick and hoping for the best is not a solution.
posted by slow graffiti at 5:40 PM on July 31, 2013 [10 favorites]

Anecdotally, my latex allergy did get noticeably worse with prolonged exposure. Extrapolating out from a sample of one, anaphylaxis doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility. So this is just as much a health risk to you as hormonal birth control is for her.

My other concern would be with irritated and broken skin on those areas if STDs are even a remote possibility. It seems to me that broken skin would increase the chance of exposure an unacceptable amount.
posted by Beti at 5:41 PM on July 31, 2013

Go to an allergist or internist or pretty much any doc and get an epipen. My allergist said it can get worse fast and is one of the more dangerous allergies.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:52 PM on July 31, 2013

[Answer. The. Question.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:00 PM on July 31, 2013 [7 favorites]

First, stop using latex condoms. There are other options mentioned above that are just as effective. (Some polyuruthane ones can reduce sensitivity--try several, maybe; lambskin ones are expensive but apparently amazing.) Allergies can and do get worse with repeated exposure. If you're not willing or able to talk to your girlfriend about this, you should at least talk to your doctor about this, and then follow their advice.

Second, does she know that you're allergic? (I'm assuming not) You owe it to yourself to bring it up with her. The health risks to you are potentially large--massive allergic reactions are zero fun and will totally kill your sexytimes. The health risks to her for most birth control are pretty minimal, assuming that she's a relatively normal person with no major health issues. An IUD or Norplant is, in my opinion, about the most effective, least problem causing birth control there is. This (birth control in general, not necessarily those specific options) is something that she should talk to her doctor about--there are lots of horror stories about weight gain and blood clots and whatever, but it's important to remember (1) that many of these are, in fact, horror stories--relatively rare worst-case scenarios, and (2) the odds of birth control related risks can be greatly reduced by selecting an appropriate form of birth control.

I hate answers that are basically "doctor up", because I get that it's not always easy to do so, but this is one of those instances in which it's really the only right answer.
posted by MeghanC at 6:18 PM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, re: something you should insist on: yes, it is.

Repeatedly exposing yourself to an allergen to avoid an awkward conversation with your partner is pretty firmly in the Not OK category, in my opinion. If, for whatever reason, this is a conversation you can't have--she doesn't believe you, you're too embarrassed, whatever--that's a not good sign, and I would urge you to reconsider continuing a sexual relationship with her.
posted by MeghanC at 6:23 PM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anecdotally, my latex allergy got significantly worse over time when I was in regular contact with latex condoms. I had to take quite a fee weeks off from PIV sex in order to fully recover. I'm a lady, if that matters.

Not that you asked, but my solution was polyurethane condoms (which break significantly more often than latex) used with spermicidal cream/jelly every time. Good luck! And please stop exposing yourself to an allergen.
posted by waterisfinite at 6:39 PM on July 31, 2013

I'm only going to discuss the allergic response part, and not the communication aspect.

You need to have that allergy checked out by an allergist, because the results will affect the applicability of the answers here w/r/t non-latex condom use and recommendations. There are a couple of types of latex allergy/hypersensitivity, and the type matters a lot. It cannot be diagnosed over the internet. Do not let your provider blow off the history of contact dermatitis after wearing latex gloves. You may need to be emphatic with your GP (if you need a referral to an allergist) about the problem and very specific about rashes on your genitals following condom use.

You may or may not be able to use polyisoprene condoms. I am allergic to latex (Type IV allergic reaction) and can use them most of the time. This is not true for everyone with a latex allergy, nor is it true for people with certain manifestations of their allergic response. I have atopy, and reducing my overall allergen load and sensitivity (allergy shots for the other stuff) also helped. I use polyurethane condoms when I have particularly high exposures to other allergens and am feeling itchier overall.

The kind of lubrication on the condom or that you're using during sex can also add to irritation. You may want to patch test lubes on (non-genital) skin to find out if that's adding to the issue--or if it is its own separate issue.

However, none of this is medical advice: these are things that are true for me as a latex-sensitive woman who has sought medical advice for her hypersensitivities.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 6:51 PM on July 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, don't keep wearing latex condoms.

But, your health issues and her health issues are of equal importance. The compromise/middle ground here is a non-latex condom.
posted by heyjude at 7:10 PM on July 31, 2013

From the OP:
First, thank you, these responses (especially the HECK NO responses) are helping to shore up my resolve to do something about this. I think I have a lot invested in being sexually "easy," undemanding, and uncomplicated, and I've been resisting the inevitable.

We have talked about this, and she's been aware that I'm allergic for the whole relationship, but I've definitely soft-pedaled the issue. That said, my girlfriend tends to be frustratingly coy and uncommunicative about sex, and actively resists seeing the doctor about anything, so any birth control that requires a doctor's appointment is doubly contentious.

As for polyurethane condoms, when I've used them in the past I found them tight--boner-killing tight--and, yes, they broke a lot. I'm going to suggest female condoms, but part of the appeal of male condoms is the lack of mess--I think she finds semen unappealing/gross, and part of the a appeal of male condoms is the 100% semen containment aspect. In that respect I'm not sure female condoms would be acceptable. And, for me, condoms in a monogamous relationship are already kind of a compromise, so condoms that I hate (i.e. condoms that I worry about breaking, and which don't fit) are pretty unappealing. As much as I worry about my allergy, nice/premium condoms go a long way toward making condom use bearable.

Finally, I'd like to thank Uniformitarianism Now!, whose answer is exactly what I was looking for. I'm going to ask my doctor to give me a referral to an allergist.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:58 PM on July 31, 2013

Weird, for many years I used polyurethane condoms when my partner showed signs of latex allergies and I found the exact opposite situation you did. Latex were incredibly tight, always, and I tried half a dozen brands. I found a really expensive but nice poly condom from Durex (cost about $1 each, became so hard to find I eventually bought them online from Amazon in bulk). They were designed to be "baggy" in that they were like an inch or two longer than normal and there was a lot of "play" especially if you followed their suggestion of a drop of lube inside the condom.

It felt a little like a plastic bag over your junk, but it worked, wasn't tight, never broke in 8 years of use, and gave way more sensation than the super tight trojan latex condoms I used previously.
posted by mathowie at 9:11 PM on July 31, 2013

As a woman with a latex allergy, mine got worse with prolonged exposure to the point where decades after being an old married lady, I still get rashes from bandaids. Poly condoms are more expensive but I personally shelled out for them, and they weren't as comfortable as latex for either party involved, unfortunately, but they didn't leave me with a broken set of ladybits after the fact, at least.

If disease transmission is not a concern in your relationship there are nonhormonal methods that your girlfriend can consider, and if she can't get herself to consider those because of the squick factor, that's a problem that she needs to work out for herself.
posted by padraigin at 9:30 PM on July 31, 2013

From the OP:
I've ordered some of the Durex Avanti condoms from Amazon. Thanks, everyone! Wish us luck!
posted by taz (staff) at 10:08 PM on July 31, 2013

Nthing, anecdatally, that a latex allergy can be cumulative/progressive.

I was going to suggest that you guys consider some form of pull-out (maybe plus spermicidal foam), because pull-out is statistically nearly as effective as condoms, but if your girlfriend thinks semen is gross then that might not be a great solution for you guys.

That said, I think it is time to politely put your foot down. She may not like semen, doctors, talking about sex, or the idea of hormonal birth control, but it's not acceptable that you're continuing to use latex on your man-parts when it can give you a rash or worse. This is a time when she should compromise. (Or learn to love Durex Avanti -- I hope it works for y'all!)
posted by feets at 12:15 AM on August 1, 2013

The answer is that with a latex allergy, you should definitely not be using latex condoms. Happily, there are decent non-latex condoms out there, so you don't have to have the big "Seriously, I absolutely cannot use condoms" negotiation with your girlfriend.

I see someone already recommended one brand. Another brand of non-latex condoms that gets excellent reviews is Lifestyles Skyn polyisoprene condoms. I've seen reviews where people have said they're actually better than latex condoms in terms of sensation.

Be careful when you shop for them, because Lifestyles also makes a "Skyn" branded latex condom whose packaging looks pretty much identical. Read carefully and make sure it says "non-latex".

(Actually, it looks like you have to take the same care with Durex Avanti condoms. A google search tells me they've started selling a line of latex condoms under the brand "Avanti Bare." It's actually not clear to me whether they still make the non-latex Avanti condoms -- all I can find on Amazon are the latex kind. I'd double-check and make sure that what you ordered is actually non-latex.)
posted by snowmentality at 7:42 AM on August 1, 2013

AFAIK, the only Durex Avanti Bare male condoms currently being manufactured are natural latex. Polyisoprene Avanti Bare condoms were discontinued at least a year ago.

I know this because I preferred Avanti Bare polyisoprene condoms to polyisoprene Skyn and Supra and then went through a long dry spell (I can't believe I'm telling the internet that, but I will admit anything if it saves someone from genital injuries), and went to order more, and was like "NOOOOOOO WHY DO YOU HATE ME DUREX?!?!?!?!" I used all the power of the googles and calling international drugstores/pharmacies looking for

There may still be unexpired polyisoprene Avanti bare in warehouse deadstock, though I haven't found any, and I'd want to know about storage conditions. (Still, if you have found a source of legitimate deadstock, I would love to know. I won't be greedy, I swear. Polyisoprene Skyn was second-place for me (some people do prefer Skyn to polyisoprene Bare, I just wasn't one of them).)

That said, I hadn't seen some of the brands of polyurethane male condoms listed on Amazon before, and I may do some experimenting with those as well.

Best wishes with the allergist referral--I'm glad my earlier post was helpful.

Another helpful pointer I'd forgotten: if you are prone to skin reactions and are using a soap or body wash that is fragranced or in any way harsh, you may be inadvertently irritating your skin just a tiny bit, and for some people that can contribute to making hypersensitivity reactions worse or trigger reactions to substances that ordinarily wouldn't bother you. If you and your allergist determine that polyisoprene condoms are safe and reasonable to try, you might consider switching body care products to reduce the possibility of sensitizing yourself to polyisoprene. That may be overly cautious, but that's for you to discuss with your doctor.

(General info for other thread readers: Mucous membranes--such as the glans of the penis and the inner lining of the foreskin, or in my case the inner parts of the vulva-- are different, and need to be washed differently and very gently anyway. However, I'm talking about washing body skin and skin on the rest of the genitals, because the OP is mentioning probable latex reactions on the rest of his body, not just mucous membranes.)
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 10:18 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

From the OP:
I can confirm that the polyurethane Durex Avanti condoms are unavailable--I ordered the latex version by accident. Luckily, I was able to cancel my Amazon order after the thread was updated--thanks again, everyone. Don't drink and order condoms!
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:45 AM on August 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, my SO has a latex allergy, and her vagina really really doesn't like it. We both found the Durex non-latex condoms to be the best while they were around, and were sad to see them discontinued.

Now we also use the LifeStyles Skyns, which are acceptable but not as nice.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:39 PM on August 9, 2013

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