Ever been with a guy who left your vagina feeling less than fresh? Have you taken your symptoms to the gyno only to be told that everything's clear? Your vagina's trying to tell you something. Stop and listen – it might have something enlightening to share.
I recently spent some time in love with a man who, after a few months, instilled insecurity and self-doubt that I hadn't before felt. But still in the throes of joy at the thought that I might be in the company of the guy with whom I'd grow old, those feelings manifested elsewhere. My skin, my weight, my work.
But something that took the brunt of the emotional abuse (aside from my brain) was my vulva, and I had no idea. It felt swollen and itchier than usual. Now, one can't deny that a good scratching at the end of the day feels damn good, like the ultimate ball scratch, but in this case something wasn't right.
And though it didn't offend me, I noticed a slightly different odor. Especially following sex. But I also had been traveling a lot, eating foods my body didn't recognize, feeling stressed, etc. so for all I knew it was a result of my unsettled lifestyle.
But maybe not. I ended the relationship, a difficult but necessary task after realizing that his reckless disregard for my emotions was eventually going to turn me into a crumpled mess.
My action was partly inspired by his complete lack of tact when informing me that my vagina didn't smell right. But the words he chose, and the situation in which he chose to blurt them, turned what should have been a sensitive conversation into an insulting joke.
And I was done.
So I started to research. What was causing my otherwise healthy vulva to give off a scent that repelled a man who, at one point, seemed to enjoy eating vagina more than bacon? And I found something.
Seminal plasma hypersensitivity.
There are women out there whose sensitive areas not only react poorly to their male partners' semen, they flat out reject it. Pain, swelling, itching, rashes, infertility – these vulvas are 100 percent allergic to semen.
Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, an immunologist at the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center, told ABCNews.com that, “It can be systemic and present anaphylaxis where individuals have not just localized discomfort. They actually can have hives, soft tissue swelling … and, in the severe situations … they can … potentially die.”
What in the world is in semen that makes these women's bodies freak out? Bernstein is one of the few doctors in the country who treats this disorder and he spoke with Healthology's CoolNurse blog about the biology behind the allergy.
Bernstein says that proteins in the semen cause the reaction, and though researchers aren't sure which proteins specifically, it's apparent that they aren't unique to certain individuals. These proteins are found in most men.
Women's bodies naturally treat semen and sperm as pseudo intruders, one of the reasons why conception can be so difficult for some couples. But it's believed that, with regard to seminal plasma hypersensitivity, a particular antibody is triggered by these proteins and the woman's system goes into full-on attack mode with the allergic reactions as a resulting effect.
Some women are so sensitive to these proteins, they will feel itchy and swollen anywhere the semen makes contact, including their faces, mouths or anywhere else their partners' spooge ends up. (Sometimes it's hard to keep that stuff under control.) And though researchers have not yet seen a case involving a man experiencing allergic affects, Bernstein says they still can be at risk.
But what happens when you're married or committed to the man who's turning your vagina into a war zone? Fortunately, my problem disappeared along with my relationship, but when you're confident that your beau is “the one” there are only a few options. And they're not ideal.
Bernstein says the best way for women to treat the problem is avoidance. Sigh. So condoms, towels, anything that will keep the goo away from you. Not the most intimate acts on the planet, unfortunately. Sadly the methods and meds used to treat seasonal allergies have no effect.
However, his team has been experimenting with an injectable treatment that has had an impressive result.
“At the University of Cincinnati, we treat semen allergy by desensitizing women to their sexual partner's semen with injections similar to regular allergy shots,” says Bernstein. “We've had over 95 percent success with this treatment, but it's a laborious and costly process and it's hard to get insurance to cover it.”
Bernstein does have some suggestions that might help alleviate the reactions. Make sure the man is hydrated in order to dilute his semen and alkalinize its acidity level. And then keep a constant supply of condoms at hand.
Now I don't believe my situation was this severe. I am not 100 percent convinced that I was allergic to my former flame. But I most definitely had an unfortunate physical reaction to him and it was translated via my vulva.
We don't give our bodies enough credit when it comes to these warning signs. Our private parts are sensitive ecosystems that can implode from even the slightest change in temperature, humidity or, in this case, emotional well being.
So when something seems off, think outside the box (pun absolutely intended) and recognize what environmental influences could be causing the reaction before you assume that you must be broken.