Is it possible to be allergic to sex? (I’m serious–and a little bit desperate.) I’ve heard some women are allergic to certain hormones and this aggravates PMS. If this is true, I could be reacting to hormones just as things are getting exciting. Help! –Colinda J., Alexandria, Virginia

Nothing personal, Colinda kid, but you sound like one of the classic Dates from Hell. However, you probably don’t have what you think you have.

It has long been known that some women suffer allergic reactions that coincide with their menstrual periods. In some cases this may simply be because menstruation makes them more susceptible to conventional allergens. In other cases, though, they may have “female sex hormone allergy”–that is, they’ve become allergic to their own sex hormones.

In extreme instances some women go into “anaphylactic shock,” which can be life-threatening. On the first day of her period one woman suddenly broke out in hives and experienced a choking sensation and shortness of breath, followed by a drop in blood pressure and loss of consciousness. At the hospital doctors brought her out of it with antihistamines, but she was plenty freaked, especially when this occurred six more times over a period of ten months. Although drugs seemed to prevent the problem, she decided to take no chances and had a hysterectomy, which cured her once and for all.

It was never determined precisely what chemical the woman was reacting to; on the first day of a woman’s period her sex hormone levels typically are low. But doctors suspect some women are reacting to the sex hormone progesterone. In one study of four women who suffered milder forms of anaphylaxis, two experienced marked improvement when given hormone-suppressing drugs. The big drawback (or maybe not, depending on how you look at it) was that menstruation also stopped.

Interesting as all this no doubt is, Colinda, it probably has no relevance to you. Female sex-hormone allergy is generally related to your menstrual period, not to sex. Possibly what you’ve got is an allergy to semen. This is usually described as rare, but enough reports have accumulated in the literature to make me think it’s more common than is widely believed.

The prototypical case was a 30-year-old woman who believed she had an “allergy to men.” This had become progressively worse over the years. The first time she’d had sex she experienced general itching plus irritation and swelling of the genitals. A few years later, after having intercourse three times in one night, she noticed itching and swelling of the right eye, which subsided over a 12-hour period. Finally one night about ten minutes after intercourse she got hives, felt faint, had difficulty breathing, and found her eyelids severely swollen. She was taken to a hospital emergency room and given a shot of some unspecified drug, whereupon the reaction began to diminish. She subsequently suffered a couple additional episodes, but noticed they never occurred when the man used a condom. (At the risk of sounding like I’m trying out for the Geraldo show, I note she had no adverse reaction when she swallowed semen.) Skin testing confirmed that she was allergic to something in seminal fluid, although precisely what remains to be determined.

Adverse (or at least odd) reactions to sex don’t necessarily involve allergies. You may recall our correspondence some years ago with a woman who always sneezed following orgasm; I’ve since read a report of a man with a similar complaint. It’s possible this is caused by tickling in the nose due to engorgement of the “erectile tissue,” which swells at the same time erectile tissue elsewhere in the body swells, if you catch my drift.

One important note: all the above occur after sex. If your problem, whatever it may be, occurs “just as things are getting exciting,” i.e., prior to orgasm, then I’m not sure what you’ve got. (Sexist thought: it doesn’t involve “headaches,” does it?) If it’s as troubling as you suggest, find yourself a good allergist.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.