(NEW YORK) -- After 14 years of marriage, Leticia Ortega developed allergies, not just to pollen and grasses and even gluten -- but to sex.
"Well, technically, I am allergic to sperm," said the Fort Worth, Texas, 36-year-old. "My body reacts as if it's a foreign object and tries to get rid of it as soon as possible. I'm constantly at my gynecologist's office."
Every time Ortega has sex, she swells up. At first, she said she "learned to live with it," but her steady boyfriend worries that it's his fault. She had no problems in her previous marriage that produced three children, aged 13 to 21.
"The allergist said that I either became sensitive," she said, "or because I was married for so long, I was used to his sperm."
Allergies like Ortega's can stand in the way of a good sex life. Even the simple run-down congestion and drippy nose that accompanies nature's bounty can put a damper on spring love. Other common culprits are condoms and sex toys.
Those allergic to latex react to the proteins found in natural, a milky fluid that comes from the rubber tree. A latex allergy can cause reactions ranging from itching and hives to difficulty breathing and deadly anaphylaxis, according to the Mayo Clinic. And repeated exposure can make it worse.
Luckily, Ortega isn't allergic to latex. In fact, condoms make her sex allergy go away, which was one of the first clues in diagnosing her problem. She has seminal plasma hypersensitivity and the adverse symptoms are not from the sperm itself, but the proteins in the semen that carries it. She had the same reaction in another relationship just after her divorce.
Her condition is an under-recognized problem and affects about 20,000 to 40,000 women in the United States, according to Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, who specializes in allergies and immunology.
Some women have been known to sleep with their new husband for the first time and break out in hives. Women can experience abdominal swelling or a local reaction that they describe "like a needle sticking in to their vagina," according to Bernstein.
The "gold standard" for treating semen allergies is to isolate the proteins in the man and do skin testing on the woman to determine which are to blame, according to Bernstein. The woman can be injected with a small amount of the offending protein and desensitize her reaction, just as doctors do for bee sting allergies.
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