A: You can have an allergic reaction to condom use. The cause is a protein in the latex used to make condoms. Allergies to latex condoms occur in both men and women. Symptoms include a hives-like rash and itching, dryness and, sometimes, shortness of breath, welts, and eczema. Latex allergy can also lead to life-threatening anaphylactic shock.
Latex allergies are most common among health care workers who may have almost continuous exposure due to wearing latex gloves and working with items such as urinary catheters and syringes. You're more prone to a latex allergy if you have other allergies. Overall, estimates of the prevalence of these reactions range from less than one percent to six percent of the U.S. population. People who are allergic to latex also may be sensitive to foods that contain similar proteins: bananas, avocados, chestnuts, kiwi fruit, and tomatoes.
If you are affected, you can opt for polyurethane condoms, which protect against pregnancy just as well. Polyurethane is thin and strong and effectively conducts body heat and, according to some reports, is more compatible with sexual pleasure than latex. However, the polyurethane products have higher breakage rates than latex condoms and therefore may not be as effective in preventing transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Condoms made of lambskin are available, as well, but are too porous to prevent transmission of disease.
Women who believe themselves allergic to latex condoms used by their partners should make sure that they are not reacting to either the spermicide or a lubricant. You can do this by changing brands of condoms or lubricants or by wearing a latex glove to see if any irritation develops. Other forms of birth control are available to women - birth control pills, a latex-free barrier method called the FemCap, or IUD's - but, excepting abstinence, condoms are still the most effective way to prevent sexual transmission of HIV and other diseases.
Andrew Weil, M.D.