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DocSpot: Condom allergy

Dear Dr Margaret
I’m allergic to condoms. What can I do about it?

Most condoms are made of latex rubber, so if you truly are allergic to condoms, it is probably a latex allergy that is causing the problem. In the USA, for example, about 1–3% of people are allergic to latex. The allergy is even more common (about 6–7%) in people who regularly come into contact with latex in their working lives, such as healthcare workers (because of latex gloves) and people working in latex manufacturing. Latex allergy is also very common in people with spina bifida, probably because they have had a lot of operations from a young age involving contact with surgeons’ latex gloves. As far as I know, once you develop this problem, you always have it.

Is it truly condom allergy?

Allergy to latex condoms can cause a rash on the penis, or on the genital skin of your sexual partner. As well as redness, there may be blistering and itching. The rash usually occurs 6–48 hours after using the condom. If these are your symptoms, latex allergy could be the reason, but other things can also cause similar symptoms. For example, using a perfumed bubble bath, soap or shower gel that does not suit you can cause irritation on the genitals, or an infection such as herpes might be responsible.
Some condoms contain a spermicide (usually nonoxynol-9), so your problem could be sensitivity to the spermicide, rather than to the latex rubber.

Try non-latex, non-spermicide condoms

Non-latex condoms are available, so it would make sense to try these. Check the description on the packet. Non-latex condoms will usually state that they are made from polyurethane (but there are other non-latex materials). As well as not provoking an allergic reaction, they do not have a rubbery smell. Also, they conduct body heat better so they feel thinner than they really are, which may make sex more pleasurable.
  • Durex Avanti is a widely available polyurethane condom.
  • eZ.on is a polyurethane condom that is ‘bidirectional, so you can put it on inside-out.
  • Tactylon is another non-latex condom.

Research suggests that the Avanti and Tactylon condoms are as effective for contraception as the usual latex types. However, non-latex condoms are slightly more likely to break, so take extra care putting them on (see Using a condom).

Check that the condom does not contain spermicide, such as nonoxynol-9. (In fact, this is less common in condoms now, because research among women at high risk of catching HIV showed that nonoxynol-9 actually increased their risk.)

Latex allergy can be serious

Latex allergy can sometimes be much more serious than just a rash. It can cause shortness of breath, feeling faint and swelling of the skin shortly after contact with latex. Anyone with these symptoms needs immediate medical attention. If this has happened to you in the past, you need to discuss it with your doctor, because in rare cases this type of reaction can be fatal. If you have latex allergy and need a medical or surgical procedure you should inform medical staff; you should also tell your dentist.

You may have food allergies as well

Latex comes from the sap of the rubber tree Hevea brasiliensis. (This is different from the rubber plant that you might have at home.) People who are allergic to latex may be allergic to some plant foods that contain similar chemicals, especially avocado, potato, banana, tomato and kiwi fruit.

Sources of information

Beezhold DH et al. Latex allergy can induce clinical reactions to specific foods. Clinical and Expperimental Allergy 1996; 26: 416–22.
Black K, Kubba A. What’s new in contraception? Trends in Urology, Gynaecology and Sexual Health 2004; Jan/Feb: 22–5.
Gallo MF et al. Non-latex versus latex male condoms for contraception. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2003; 2:CD003550. Oxford, Update Software.
Reddy S. Latex Allergy. American Family Physician 1998; 57: 93–102.
World Health Organization. WHO/CONRAD technical consultation on nonoxynol-9., World Health Organization, Geneva, 9-10 October 2001: summary report. Reproductive Health Matters 2002; 10: 175–81.

Last updated; Sunday, August 30th 2020

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