While researching Wednesday’s post, I ran into a number of strange case studies. They didn’t quite fit into that post, but I thought they were too interesting to ignore. If you’re interested, follow me down the pubmed rabbit hole.

When I typed “semen allergy” into google scholar last week, the very first hit was this paper [pdf]:

We report the case of a 20-year-old woman with documented Brazil nut allergy who developed widespread [hives] and mild [shortness of breath] after intercourse with her boyfriend who had earlier consumed Brazil nuts. Skin prick testing with the boyfriend’s semen after Brazil nut consumption confirmed significant reactivity whereas a sample before nut consumption was negative.

ResearchBlogging.orgThe abstract sort of says it all: woman has known allergy, boyfriend eats allergen, they have sex and girl has allergic reaction. For the uninitiated, the skin-prick testing thing might seem a bit weird – they got samples from the boyfriend before and after he ate brazil nuts (masturbation for science!) and injected them under the girlfriend’s skin – but this is a standard allergy test. Allergists already do this with bread mold and ground up dust mites, so I guess semen should be any stranger, but I still raised an eyebrow. If there’s an allergic reaction, after thirty minutes or so, the area around the skin prick will develop a characteristic “wheal and flare,” which is a raised lump at the site of the prick (the wheal) and a reddish circle of inflammation surrounding it (the flare).

If you have an allergy, but you don’t know the cause, allergists will draw a grid on your back and inject a standard battery of allergens. I know from experience that this is an unpleasant procedure, especially when they don’t find anything and decide that the shallow pricks on the back weren’t enough, so they opt to inject a few other allergens deeper in your shoulder… but I digress.

Allergy Test
(Source, flickr user jspar)

These doctors found that the woman responded to her boyfriends semen after he had eaten brazil nuts.

i-d52d904ad9d5b8d7197d64dc2ac31250-Screen Shot 2011-07-28 at 9.20.17 PM.png
(From the paper)

Seems a bit like cheating the way the light is positioned, and I think I can see a bit of a wheal on the left side, but they claim:

We believe this to be the first case of a sexually transmitted allergic reaction.

That was published in 2007.

But then I found this other paper from 1986:

A woman complained of severe itching and flushing after sexual intercourse or other physical contact with her husband. She developed a weal and flare on intradermal [under the skin] testing with her husband’s semen and sweat, pooled donor semen and the sweat from her 2 sons.

This poor woman. I’d like to quote the paper at length, but the pdf I have is a scanned copy and I can’t copy paste, so I’ll summarize. Woman is literally allergic to her husband – if she puts her face on a pillow that he’s slept on, she breaks out into hives. When they do a skin-prick test with his semen, she goes into anaphylaxis – nausea, dizziness, sweating and increased heart rate.

She also has a known allergy to a bunch of green/yellow vegetables, which she avoids, but her husband eats in copious quantities. They suspect that he might be transferring dietary allergens in his semen because (and here’s why the 2007 paper above is full of crap) of a paper from 1978 in which a woman who has an allergy to walnuts has an allergic reaction to her husband’s semen after he’s eaten walnuts, but not before. Sound familiar? I can’t seem to find said paper online, but they also apparently went so far as to search for (and find) walnut proteins in the husband’s semen.

Back to the vegetable allergy woman though: In addition to the husband’s semen, they also tested his sweat, sweat from her two sons (one of whom ate the vegetables she was allergic to and one that did not), and semen pooled from a number of anonymous donors, and she had reactions to all of them (though, interestingly – her reaction to the pooled donor-semen was not as severe). She also had reactions to ground up hair from her husband (but not her sons) caused a reaction. They stopped short of testing her son’s semen – I guess they’d reached the limits of propriety with the random strangers.

These doctors were clearly having a great time testing everything they could think of but, and I’ll take the time to transcribe this because it’s awesome:

This mysterious case obviously needed further testing[…] However, she solved her problem, at least temporarily, by leaving her husband! She did not wish to return for further testing.

That is one of few exclamation points I’ve ever seen in academic literature. I also image a frowny-face emoticon belongs at the end of the last sentence.

The doctors conclude that it’s probably not a dietary antigen, because she’s allergic to the pooled donor semen and because she’s allergic to sweat from both sons, one of whom doesn’t eat the vegetables that she’s known to be allergic to. But this woman is allergic to A LOT of stuff, and it seems to me that the sweat thing may be unrelated. And because of the fact that the reaction to her husband’s semen was stronger than to that of the donors, and we don’t know the diets of the donors, I don’t think anything can be ruled out.

These guys claim to have the first published example of allergy to sweat (and possibly hair), but after the irrational exuberance of that 2007 paper, I feel like I don’t know who to trust. It seems pretty clear that you can transmit dietary allergens in semen, and maybe other secretions as well? A commenter on my last post mentioned that she(?) and her partner have to avoid foods that the other is allergic to because they can transmit allergies between each other. To Elburto – get thee to an allergist, and you too could be immortalized on pubmed.

Bansal AS, Chee R, Nagendran V, Warner A, & Hayman G (2007). Dangerous liaison: sexually transmitted allergic reaction to Brazil nuts. Journal of investigational allergology & clinical immunology : official organ of the International Association of Asthmology (INTERASMA) and Sociedad Latinoamericana de Alergia e Inmunologia, 17 (3), 189-91 PMID: 17583107

Freeman S (1986). Woman allergic to husband’s sweat and semen. Contact dermatitis, 14 (2), 110-2 PMID: 3709144

Comments

  1. #1 Pierce R. Butler
    July 29, 2011

    Which raises two questions in my low-life mind:

    * How long did it take for the allergen in the Brazil-nuts to migrate to the Boyfriend-nuts?

    and

    The doctors conclude that it’s probably not a dietary antigen…

    * Aw c’mon!

  2. #2 Kevin
    July 29, 2011

    How long did it take for the allergen in the Brazil-nuts to migrate to the Boyfriend-nuts?

    This is not a low-life question, I’m really curious about it as well. Seems like it would have been an easy thing to test – just have the BF jerk off every 10 minutes or so after eating the brazil nuts and then do a time-course <.<

    And to your last point – touché .

  3. #3 oneoflokis
    July 29, 2011

    Now come, friends. (No pun intended!) What is the amazing weird science here? Seems to be one of the countless scientific papers on sth everybody knows/a matter of common sense, once described on the comments section of the Guardian website I recall as: “The Defecatory Habits of Forest-Dwelling Ursines”. :)

    Everybody KNOWS, dammit, that bodily fluids (eg sweat, semen, female juices) tend to smell – and taste! – of whatever you’ve been eating last, especially if it’s strong! Eg garlic. Or even more so, when you eat a curry, as Brits like to do.

    So what is so amazing that a nut residue is expressed via semen? We already know that people with peanut allergies dare not kiss loved ones who have consumed these..

    Come up with a cure and really impress me! (Indeed, I fear the remarkable sensitivity shown by what must be MINUSCULE amounts may even prove the contentions of homeopathy..for how many molecules of”brazil nut protein”do you think a sperm squirt can contain?Now if they’d TESTED that sperm 4the molecules..

  4. #4 oneoflokis
    July 29, 2011

    & plenty of disease pathogens are transmitted via bodily fluids.. so why not allergens?

  5. #5 Kevin
    July 29, 2011

    @ oneoflokis – I’m not saying it’s necessarily unexpected, though I did find it funny that one group thought they were the first to describe the phenomenon, even though there were papers from thirty years earlier showing the same thing.

    Also, the fact that they tossed hair in a mortar and pestle and then injected it under this woman’s skin…

  6. #6 GregJ
    July 30, 2011

    The title of this post says “sexually transmitted allergies“, which isn’t exactly the same thing.
    Just saying…

  7. #7 Elizabeth Munroz
    July 30, 2011

    As for the hair… I am allergic to my own hair after I’ve been in the garden and it falls across my face or neck. (I have long hair). After gardening, I need to remove clothes and shower down or my reaction gets worse. It’s probably the mold in the dirt rather than the pollens. I wonder if they had her husband wash his hair before testing.

  8. #8 David Marjanović
    July 31, 2011

    Everybody KNOWS, dammit, that bodily fluids (eg sweat, semen, female juices) tend to smell – and taste! – of whatever you’ve been eating last, especially if it’s strong! Eg garlic. Or even more so, when you eat a curry, as Brits like to do.

    My urine often smells of the day’s soup. And on the rare occasions that I eat confit de canard, that’s what my pee strongly smells of for 24 hours :-) :-) :-)

    Indeed, I fear the remarkable sensitivity shown by what must be MINUSCULE amounts may even prove the contentions of homeopathy..for how many molecules of”brazil nut protein”do you think a sperm squirt can contain?

    This is the immune system we’re talking about. It has several built-in amplifiers.

    I’m allergic to nuts. Most of the stuff labeled “may contain traces of nuts” does; I can detect them, they make my throat itch.

  9. #9 Pteryxx
    July 31, 2011

    Seems like it would have been an easy thing to test – just have the BF jerk off every 10 minutes or so after eating the brazil nuts and then do a time-course…

    This is EASY?

  10. #10 Kevin
    July 31, 2011

    @ GregJ – Allergic reaction vs Allergies? Ok, maybe I took a little license…

    @ David

    This is the immune system we’re talking about. It has several built-in amplifiers.

    I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    @ Pteryxx – Easy for the researchers… I put in an emoticon that was intended to show sarcasm, but I think movable type thought it was HTML code so it didn’t go through.

  11. #11 cactusren
    August 1, 2011

    I agree with GregJ–the title should be “sexually transmitted alergens”. From your title, I thought this was going to be about someone with a nut allergy somehow transferring that nut allergy to a sexual partner. Which would be really weird.

    Interesting post, anyway, though!

  12. #12 AllergyGirl
    August 2, 2011

    I was introduced to this phenomenon last year in a rather unpleasant personal way. I’m allergic to the antibiotic amoxycillin, a fairly common trait that manifests as skin rashes. It so happens that my girlfriend (and lesbian lover) ran into some medical complications for which she was given amoxycillin. Long story short, we had intercourse and I developed a bad rash on the inside of my thigh/ at the groin. We were worried and confused until the penny dropped (not to go into details, but she produces a lot of fluid). Bad as it was, I realized that it could have been a lot worse if it had happened with a male partner (use your imagination). Not being straight has its upsides :)

  13. #13 Kevin
    August 2, 2011

    @ Cactusren – Well, the paper calls it “sexually transmitted allergic reaction,” which is pretty close to “sexually transmitted allergies.” However, I do think your phrase is far more accurate.

    @ AllergyGirl – Not too surprising, female ejaculate is pretty similar to male prostate fluid, so it makes sense that it would capable of causing the same problem. And also, I agree that outside is probably better than inside.

    PSA – If your partner is allergic to something, avoid that something (or avoid sex).

  14. #14 Tom Juntti
    August 7, 2011

    It has been known since the early ’70’s that antibody to human spermatozoa is associated with infertility in women.

  15. #15 Ruth
    August 10, 2011

    Here’s an interesting question about another bodily fluid – blood! Could you pass on an allergy through a blood transfusion?

  16. #16 Stanley
    August 25, 2011

    Im glad someone actualy brought up a much interesting topic ,blood! since semen contains blood or even made up of it then definately anything can be transfered through it ,just saying

  17. #17 science junkie
    August 25, 2011

    It would only make sense.. I mean I used to run a lab for a major pharmacy and when they gave the patients doing husman dosing things like asparagus, you coul always smell it in the lab *gag, cough* I know there should be some decorum but man, don’t feed people that stuff when you KNOW it will be jugged up for days at a time *ugh*

    I am curious though.. I have a friend who was actually allergic to her ex-df’s sperm.. not when he ate anything, the actual ejaculate itself. Always wondered what protein it was that did that.. they were tested like lab rats with no result. I joked with her later its a way to keep him from procreating- outta the gene pool you!

  18. #18 Kevin
    August 26, 2011

    @ Science Junkie – Funny you should ask…

  19. #19 Tiandu
    February 9, 2012

    What about antibiotic allergies specifically? Is one partner at risk if the other partner is taking an antibiotic they are allergic to?!

  20. #20 Kevin
    February 9, 2012

    @ Tiandu – I don’t recall seeing examples of antibiotic allergy being transmitted, but I don’t see any reason that couldn’t happen. Better safe than sorry I would think.

  21. #21 Rexe Yeisleyu
    USA
    July 25, 2012

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  22. #22 Hivy
    British Columbia
    November 4, 2012

    I have chronic urticaria since May 30, 2012 after taking a heavy course of antibiotics. My only allergy prior to May 30th was a little asthma from dogs. If my husband touches me in one spot for a few moments I break out into hives and the area looks and feels like a burn. Prior to May 30th no problem. The only thing that helps with the symptoms is Prednisone. If I eat berries I get anaphylactic and require Epinephrine within 1/2 hour. So itchy and hives every day.

  23. #23 Rose
    United States
    December 27, 2012

    I actually believe the 2007 paper. I have a pretty severe allergy to shrimp…A few times my boyfriend has eaten it, and if we have sex within three or four days I become very itchy and irritated in my vaginal area after he ejaculates.

    • #24 Kevin Bonham
      January 2, 2013

      Hi Rose –

      I don’t actually mean to say that the 2007 paper is wrong in terms of allergens being transmitted in semen (that seems fairly well established), only that their claim of being the first to describe the phenomenon is crap. Clearly, there were several papers before that had shown the same thing.

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