Sexual Health

An Intimate Allergy: Reacting to Semen

Medical Reviewer:

Anthony Vavasis, MD

Medically Reviewed On: November 26, 2013

When it comes to relationships, we've all reacted badly to our partner at some point or another. But some people are actually allergic to their partners—to their partner's semen, that is. Semen allergy is a rare but often-misdiagnosed condition that can masquerade as a common yeast or herpes infection. Not surprisingly, the associated pain, redness, burning and swelling can wreak havoc on some relationships, especially if the woman is trying to become pregnant.

Once accurately diagnosed, however, couples can be treated successfully. Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, an associate professor of clinical medicine of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine is one of the few researchers who has studied semen allergy and now treats people with this condition. Below, Bernstein explains what causes semen allergy and how to cope with it.

What kinds of allergic reactions can people have to semen?
People can have localized problems after immediate contact with semen. They can have burning, pain and swelling that can occur for long periods of time. Typically it affects the outer vaginal area, though it can also affect the inner area. Some women describe severe burning and pain, where it feels like 1,000 needles have been injected in them at one time.

Some people can have a systemic response that involves trouble with breathing, hives and swelling. “But we haven't had any fatalities that we're aware of with this condition,” says Bernstein. “Deaths are more likely to occur as the result of a classic anaphylactic response.” And some people can have both localized and systemic responses.

Symptoms can last from hours to days, and they typically start within 20 to 30 minutes after contact.

What in semen are people allergic to?
People are allergic to proteins in semen. “We don't really know which proteins are responsible at this point,” says Bernstein. Many of the proteins associated with the semen allergy are believed to be common proteins found in all semen, but it's also possible for people to be allergic to a protein that is unique to an individual.

The systemic reaction is believed to be linked to a specific antibody that is triggered by the protein and is similar to what occurs in people who have seasonal allergies. There are probably multiple causes of the localized reaction. A delayed type of hypersensitivity response similar to what occurs with poison ivy may be involved.

Is this allergy often misdiagnosed or under-diagnosed?
Most women typically visit urologists and their gynecologist for localized symptoms. Unless the doctor is astute and takes a thorough history, it can be overlooked.

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