Not the kind of burning love you were hoping for.

By Ashley Mateo
June 04, 2018

Your vagina is a pretty strong body part—it can squeeze a human out of it, after all. But the vagina and vulva also have some of the most sensitive, delicate skin on your body. If it makes contact with the wrong substances, you could find yourself dealing with an allergic reaction.

“The vaginal mucosa, inside the vagina, is actually very porous, meaning it absorbs a lot of materials,” explains Jessica Shepherd, MD, an ob-gyn and minimally invasive gynecologic surgeon at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. “If you’re putting things in there that you’re allergic to or that are unsafe, you may be exposing yourself to more than you think because of how readily it's absorbed—and that can lead to a really uncomfortable reaction.”

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An allergic reaction in your vagina or on your vulva shares a lot of symptoms with yeast or bacterial infections and even some STIs: itching, redness, irritation, and sometimes discharge. The difference lies in the duration. “With an allergy, the symptoms will manifest almost immediately after the point of contact,” says Dr. Shepherd.

While they can be annoying and uncomfortable (and seriously kill the mood), most skin allergies are not serious; they can be treated with OTC allergy creams or a cool bath. But if your symptoms are not going away or get worse, call your doc to get to the bottom of it. In the meantime, brush up on these potential allergens that could wreak havoc on your nether regions.

Sperm

Yep, you can actually be allergic to your partner’s sperm—it’s called seminal plasma hypersensitivity, says Dr. Shepherd. “Usually when we see patients with this, they have what we call a Type I reaction: After exposure to ejaculate, they have severe itching and swelling at point of contact; in rare cases, it can escalate to a higher-grade anaphylaxis reaction,” she says. (Anaphylaxis is a serious medical emergency and can be lethal.)

“If you suspect sperm is to blame, your doctor can perform a skin prick test (the same way you would with an allergy like to peanuts or pollen) to determine which specific immunoglobulin you’re sensitive to,” she explains. If it is a sperm allergy, you’re not resigned to a life of sex with condoms...or no penetration at all. Research shows that most people people can be desensitized to the allergy through a series of injections. 

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Latex condoms

Latex is made from rubber tree fluids, and it can contain certain proteins that might clash with your immune system. Signs include localized itching, rashes, or hives, "but you could experience a more generalized reaction like anaphylaxis,” says Dr. Shepherd.

Fortunately, less than 1% of the general population in the United States has an allergy to latex, according to the American Latex Allergy Association. If you’re part of that unlucky group, “there are plenty of latex-free options,” advises Dr. Shepherd. “There are [commercially available condoms] made from polyisoprene, polyurethane, and AT-10, a synthetic polyethylene resin." Sheepskin or lambskin condoms are also readily sold in drugstores, although these aren’t as protective against sexually transmitted infections, she adds.

Spermicide

Many varieties of condoms are pre-coated with spermicide, a chemical designed to kill sperm. If it’s not the sperm itself or the latex in the condom that's the culprit, your allergic reaction could be triggered by the spermicide coating. It could also be caused by spermicide you insert into your vagina before sex in the form of a foam or dissolvable film. 

“There are a lot of active compounds in spermicide, from benzocaine, a local anesthetic, to nonoxynol-9, an organic compound,” says Dr. Shepherd. “Any of those compounds can cause genital soreness and irritation.” If your vaginal itching and burning can be attributed to spermicide, start using condoms without it or go with another method of protection. (It's not like spermicide alone is super effective pregnancy protection anyway; 28 out of every 100 women who rely on it will conceive within a year of use.)

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Fragrant or deodorant feminine products

You should already know this, but your vagina does not need douches, intimate sprays, or vaginal wipes to be clean and healthy. These and other feminine hygiene products can throw off the balance of good and bad bacteria inside your vagina, says Dr. Shepherd, potentially triggering an infection.

The fragrances added to many of these items can also leave you with an allergic reaction in or around your vaginal area. “There are so many ingredients in those products, and any one of them can affect your vagina just like they would any other part of your skin,” she explains. You could get tested by an allergist to find out exactly what compound isn’t agreeing with your vag, but your best bet is to simply nix the offending product entirely.

Chemical dyes

Before you scoff at the idea of using dye on your pubes (dying pubic hair is a thing, people really do it), you should know that you can find dye in plenty of products that affect your vaginal area, from soaps and bath bombs or bubble baths to toilet paper. “There can be a lot of chemicals in those products that are not good at all,” confirms Dr. Shepherd. If you can trace your vagina symptoms back to the dye in one of these products, just stop using it.