Condoms are the only form of contraception that protect against STIs and unplanned pregnancy. Although most people have no problems using condoms, a small proportion of people can be allergic to materials they’re made from. Here’s what to do if you think you might be one of them.
An allergic reaction to condoms can be felt by the person wearing the condom or the person they’re having sex with. The most common reasons for this reaction is either an allergy to the latex the condom is made from, or an allergy to another added ingredient.
Itchy, red or swollen skin during and after sex is the main sign that you may be having an allergic reaction to a condom. Rashes can appear anywhere the condom has touched the skin, and in more severe cases may also show up on other parts of the body, along with a runny nose, itchy eyes and scratchy throat.
If you do feel you may have an allergy to condoms, the next step is to figure out exactly which element you’re allergic to. Is it the latex? A lubricant? Discovering exactly what’s causing the reaction is a process of elimination and can take a bit of time, but it will help you figure out how to manage it. The most common allergy is to latex, so the first step is to try out some non-latex condoms, usually made from polyurethane (a type of plastic) or polyisoprene (a synthetic rubber). Most of the major condom brands offer non-latex variations so grab a few and see what works for you.
If you’ve tried a few different latex-free alternatives and there’s still no joy, it’s worth taking a look at the lubricant you’re using. A lot of people use lubricants to make sex feel better, but some ingredients may not suit everyone. For people with sensitive skin, lubes with a shorter list of ingredients are less likely to cause problems.
REMEMBER: Only use water-based or silicone lubricants with condoms. NEVER use anything oil-based such as Vaseline, petroleum jelly, cooking oils, butter, or body lotion as it can increase the chance of condom breaking.
Most condoms are made from latex, which is a milky substance from a rubber tree and the main source of natural rubbers. However, there are definitely latex-free options out there.
Nowadays, you can find them at most chemist outlets or major supermarket retailers — you just need to know what you’re looking for. Latex-free condoms could be the answer if you’re experiencing a related allergy. So, here’s a breakdown of some alternative materials; how they work and how they compare to latex:
Made from a thin plastic instead of rubber. They offer similar levels of pregnancy and STI protection. The material isn’t quite as robust and they don’t fit as tightly as latex condoms, so it’s important to be aware that they’re more likely to slip off.
Made from a synthetic rubber that doesn’t contain the same proteins known to cause an allergic reaction. Compared with latex condoms, polyisoprene is stretchier in texture and offers similar levels of protection against unplanned pregnancy and STIs.
This is more commonly an option for someone with a vagina, cervix and uterus but could also be used during anal sex. It’s a flexible, soft plastic pouch that can be inserted into the vagina or anus. Female condoms are made from a polyurethane ring and coated with a silicone lubricant. Female condoms (if used correctly) are around 95% effective in the protection of STIs and unplanned pregnancy. They’re a little tricker to use though, so it’s imperative you know how to insert one properly — before you have sex.
While you’re on this journey to maintain your sexual health with low-allergen protection — you may come across the diaphragm. It’s really important not to confuse this with the female condom mentioned above — because they’re not the same.
Is a small, shallow cup-shaped disk that is inserted through the vagina and covers the bottom of the cervix, to prevent sperm joining an egg during sex. They’re around 88% effective against preventing unplanned pregnancy, however they do not protect at all against STIs. So we don’t recommend giving this one a try at all for STI protection…
Is longer than the diaphragm (about the same length as the penis’ condom) and can be used in a vagina or an anus during sex, to protect against STIs and unplanned pregnancy.
No matter which option suits you best, the most important thing to remember is you must always use some form of protection whenever you have sex. Unless you’re in a long-term committed relationship and you’re certain you and/or your partner don’t have an STI and won’t be exposed to any — then choose a form of protection that will prevent both unplanned pregnancy and STIs. Most of the options discussed here will project you in this way, so the only issue with these alternatives is if they’re not used correctly.
When used correctly, condoms (latex or non-latex) are 98% effective in protecting you from STIs and unplanned pregnancy and female condoms are 95% effective. When they fail, it’s usually because they weren’t used correctly. So make sure you know how to use condoms and learn everything there is to know about female condoms too.
We know things don’t always go to plan. If you have a mishap with a condom, simply go and get an STI test at least 7 days after having unprotected sex. For more immediate action, your options include a PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) within 72 hours if concerned about HIV or ECP (emergency contraception pill) if concerned about pregnancy. Getting an STI test in NSW is easy…and free. If you’re worried about an unplanned pregnancy, click here to read advice from Family Planning and our Play Safe blog.
Do you have more questions about condoms? Ask our sexual health nurse Nurse Nettie, or join the conversation on the Play Safe forum.
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