Latex is a milky fluid from the rubber tree. It’s the main source of natural rubber. But if you’re like a lot of people, wearing latex gloves can make your hands itch. For others, latex exposure can ignite a full-blown allergic reaction.
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Of course, gloves aren’t the only things made from latex. Many condoms are latex-based, too. Luckily, there are plenty of latex-free options available. Even if you’re personally fine with latex condoms, think about this — you may still need to consider latex-free options for the sake of your partner.
“Women are more likely to experience an allergic reaction to a latex condom than men,” says allergist David Lang, MD. “The vagina’s mucus membranes make it easier for latex proteins to enter the body. So during sex, women with latex allergies may encounter vaginal swelling and itching.”
“Mucus membrane exposure to a condom in a woman with latex allergy could provoke a serious systemic reaction,” he explains.
Are you latex-sensitive or latex-allergic?
Latex sensitivity develops in some people over time through repeated exposure.
Before latex-free gloves were widely available, the issue was common among healthcare workers. Latex sensitivity is now less common, Dr. Lang says. The availability and widespread use of other available materials is likely the reason for this.
True latex allergies are even more rare. But they cause a more severe response. If you’re experiencing an allergic reaction to latex, you may notice itching, hives and swelling. You may also have difficulty breathing and feel like your throat is closing up.
Although very unlikely, anaphylaxis (a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction) is possible. Your body reacts when latex proteins cross the skin barrier.
What effective, latex-free options are available?
Though most condoms contain latex, there are a few alternatives made from plastic, synthetic rubber or other natural products. These alternatives include:
- Polyurethane condoms. These are made of thin plastic instead of rubber. They offer similar levels of pregnancy and STI protection. However, they don’t fit as tightly as latex condoms. So they’re more likely to slip off. They also cost a little more.
- Polyisoprene condoms. Made from synthetic rubber, these don’t contain the same proteins that cause an allergic reaction. Compared with latex condoms, polyisoprene condoms are stretchier. They also offer similar levels of pregnancy and STD prevention.
- Female condoms. This is the only option a woman can wear. A flexible, soft plastic pouch is inserted into the vagina with a flexible polyurethane ring coated with a silicone lubricant. The levels of pregnancy and STI prevention are similar to other condoms.
- Lambskin condoms. Made of sheep intestines, this condom is the only one made of a natural animal product, so it doesn’t contain any of the proteins that prompt the latex allergy. While lambskin condoms are effective against pregnancy, tiny porous holes in the condom are big enough to allow many viruses that cause STDs to pass through. Wearing a condom is important in the prevention of STIs and in keeping you and your partner healthy. You should only use lambskin condoms if the risk of STOs isn’t a concern, Dr. Lang says.
“If you’re concerned you might have a latex allergy, see your doctor,” Dr. Lang recommends. “They’ll use either a skin or blood test to find out if you have an allergy.”
“Seeking information about how to stay healthy is always a good idea, and sex should absolutely be included,” he says. “Ask your doctor for more information about latex-free protection during sex. If you have an allergy, your doctor can offer advice on the best option for you and your partner — just make sure you’re taking your health seriously enough to seek the solutions that fit both of your needs.”