Up to 12 per cent of women could be allergic to semen - some so severely that exposure could cause anaphylactic shock, a leading expert has claimed. Dr Michael Carroll, a lecturer in Reproductive Science at Manchester Metropolitan University, said that women aged 20 to 30 are thought to be worst affected, displaying symptoms immediately or up to one hour after exposure. Symptoms include irritation, itching, painful urination and eczema, but in the most severe cases, exposure to semen can cause a potentially fatal allergic reaction. Dr Carroll believes that while very few people have been diagnosed with a semen allergy, it could be common problem. He and his colleagues have carried out an unpublished survey which suggests that as many as 12 women per 100 could be affected.
In another paper, published in the journal Human Fertility, Dr Carroll said that symptoms of hypersensitivity to human semen (HHS) are often misdiagnosed due to their similarity with other conditions, such as dermatitis (inflammation of the skin) and some sexually transmitted diseases. Dr Carroll, and his colleagues at St Mary's Hospital in Manchester, diagnosed four women with the condition based on the their clinical history and allergy skin prick tests. Dr Carroll separated the sperm cells from the semen.The seminal fluid and the isolated sperm cells were used in allergy skin prick tests. An immune reaction was noted with the seminal fluid, but no reaction occurred with the isolated sperm. This demonstrated the allergy is caused by a component in the seminal fluid - most likely a glycoprotein from the prostate - as opposed to the actual sperm cells. This means that someone who is allergic to one person's semen will be allergic to all semen - changing partners will not help them to escape the allergy.
Avoiding a reaction either by abstinence or with condom use proved successful in all cases, although this was obviously not an option for those wishing to start a family.
In the paper, Dr Carroll wrote: ‘In addition to the reaction and physical discomfort, women with HHS experience emotional stress due to the impact it can have on their relationships and the concerns about family planning.’
In severe cases with a high risk of anaphylactic shock, sperm separated from the semen and can be used in assisted reproductive technology. Dr Carroll added: ‘There are numerous cases published of successful pregnancies achieved naturally and through assisted reproductive technology in women with this condition. We were able to reassure our patients that HHS does not cause infertility.’ He believes that a lack of recognition of the condition in the medical community may also be partly to blame for the lack of diagnoses, along with patients not approaching doctors about their symptoms.