My boyfriend and I recently started having sex and I think I might have a latex allergy because my vagina is itchy and burn-y for a day or two after. We use condoms. How can i definitely know? What should i do?

First, it’s great that you’re taking care of your and your partner’s sexual health by using condoms! As you probably already know, condoms are the only kind of birth control that also prevents the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs, sometimes called STDs or sexually transmitted diseases).

Second, we’re sorry that you’re dealing with this pain when you probably wish you could be concentrating on the more fun and pleasurable parts of sex!

For some quick background: most condoms are made of latex, which is a form of natural rubber. Latex allergies (or sensitivities) aren’t that common, but they can be a real pain when you have them. If you have symptoms of a more severe allergy, like hives in other places on your body or trouble breathing, get immediate medical help.

Common symptoms of a latex allergy are itchiness, burning, redness and irritation soon after exposure to latex. In the case of condoms, one or more of these symptoms would appear  up to a day after sex, and might last for as long as four days.

So, what you describe does sound a lot like a latex allergy. But having an itchy, irritated vagina could be caused by lots of things. The active ingredient in spermicide, Nonoxynol-9, is a common irritant. If you use spermicide or condoms with spermicide, stop. Switch to non-spermicidal condoms. Flavored condoms are great for oral sex, but not so perfect for penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex. That’s because they often have chemicals in them that might throw off your vagina’s ecosystem and cause some irritation, or lead to yeast infections. If you use flavored condoms for PIV sex, switch to unflavored.

Other possible culprits include yeast infections (which can cause vaginal irritation, itching and white discharge) and bacterial vaginosis (BV) (which can cause itching and green, white or gray vaginal discharge that smells fishy).

Even if switching to a non-flavored, non-spermicidal condom fixes your problem, talk to your healthcare provider. They can make sure that you’re right, and that nothing else is going on.

The good news is that if you have a latex allergy, there are still plenty of options for having safer sex.

  • Polyisoprene condoms are made from synthetic rubber that stretches in a way that’s similar to latex. Some people actually like these condoms better than latex condoms because they transmit heat better, which can make sex feel better.
  • Polyurethane condoms are made from plastic. Like polyisoprene, the material transmits heat, which help makes sex with these condoms feel better. However, they aren’t as stretchy as polyisoprene or latex. This means the condom won’t always fit as well. And when condoms don’t fit well, they’re more likely to slip off or break. This doesn’t mean that you should stay away from polyurethane condoms though—it just means you should check the fit before using them.
  • Internal condoms are made from polyurethane, which makes them a great option for people with latex allergies. Unlike external (sometimes called “male”) condoms, which go over the penis, internal condoms are inserted inside the vagina or anus. They’re a great way for people with vaginas (or who receive anal sex) to take more control over their sexual health.

Lambskin condoms are also safe for people with latex allergies. HOWEVER, lambskin condoms do NOT prevent the spread of STIs (including HIV) like latex, polyisoprene and polyurethane condoms do. For that reason, we don’t generally recommend them.

Most drug stores and grocery stores carry non-latex condoms, or you can order them online. If you’re 10-22 years old in NYC and have other questions about sexual health or need STI testing or treatment, birth control or free non-latex condoms, stop by the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. We provide free, confidential health care and health education services.