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That Itch? It May be Your Husband's Sperm

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by Rachel Lehmann-Haupt, Nov. 19, 2009

When Julie and Mike Boyd, two newlyweds from Ambridge, Pennsylvania, fell into bed on their wedding night neither expected that their sparks would be counter reactive. They had sex for the first time without a condom and instead of a warm post orgasmic rush, Boyd felt a horrible pain that she recently described on Discovery Health’s “Strange Sex,” as “like someone sticking needles inside me.”

Boyd's immediate fear was that the pain may prevent the couple from being able to conceive a child. But after seeking medical advice thinking that she had a sexually transmitted disease (STD), Boyd learned that she suffered from a condition that often goes undiagnosed and affects an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 couples – Seminal Plasma Hypersensitivity. Simply, Boyd was allergic to her husband’s semen.

Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, the leading immunologist on the condition at the University of Cincinnati's Academic Health Center says that it's important for women and couples to understand that the allergy is not a direct cause of infertility. "The allergy is not to the sperm itself," he explains. Instead, the allergy is to a protein in the man's semen that triggers a powerful immune response that not is unlike hay fever, so it just makes sexual intercourse uncomfortable. Symptoms can include extreme itching, hives, swelling, difficulty breathing, and a drop in blood pressure.

To treat the problem, the first step is standard allergy desensitization. “We gradually give the woman a low concentration of her partner's semen and then build up to a higher concentration over the course of two hours so she becomes desensitized to it,” he explains. If the allergy doesn’t improve with this method then Bernstein has also invented a technique in which he washes out the interfering protein from the semen and then injects a small amount of the processed semen at regular intervals with a subcutaneous needle.

"The condition can becomes stressful on the couple's relationship because they want to get pregnant and they can’t have intercourse, but it's generally situational and can be fixed within 24 hours so they can have comfortable intercourse," he assures.

If the normal course of treatment doesn't work, then Bernstein says that
the couple can turn to conception through intrauterine insemination (IUI), but he says this is a rare course of action. "Most of our patients have gone on to have healthy children." he says.

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt ( is a journalist and the author of In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment and Motherhood (Basic Books, 2009).