Are Allergies Cramping Your Sex Life?

Nasal allergies may make you feel anything but romantic. Here's how to get back in the mood.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 23, 2009
7 min read

Here's a wild guess: When an allergy attack hits and leaves you sneezing and itching, with teary eyes and a nose that is runny and stuffed, you probably aren't much in the mood for romance.

It may sound obvious that drippy noses don't bring out the sex kitten in people. But for the first time, a study has looked at the impact allergies have on our sex lives and found that many people with chronic allergic rhinitis, or hay fever, often put the kibosh on sex when symptoms are flaring.

This new piece of research, published recently in the journal Allergy and Asthma Proceeding, comes from Michael Benninger, MD, chairman of the otolaryngology department and the Head and Neck Institute at the Cleveland Clinic, and his son, Ryan Benninger, of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. They found that 83% of allergic rhinitis sufferers polled said that their sexual activity was affected at least sometimes. About 17% said that allergies always or almost always had a negative impact on their sex life.

"People would say, this really bothers me, and I can't tell my spouse or significant other ... but when allergies flair, I don't feel like having sex," Benninger tells WebMD.

Hay fever affects as many as 40 million Americans, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. Symptoms can include sneezing, runny or stuffy nose, watery eyes, wheezing, or cough. It's these common symptoms that are typically the focus of discussions between doctors and patients.

"When we talk to patients about allergies, we ask about fatigue, asthma, snoring, itchiness, and troubled breathing," says Clifford Bassett, MD, medical director of Allergy and Asthma Care of New York and attending physician specializing in allergy and immunology at New York's Long Island College Hospital. "We don't ask about things that go on in the bedroom. Sexual function is a quality of life issue that, as clinicians, we don't do a comprehensive enough job to assess."

The reasons people with nasal allergies avoid sex weren't evaluated in his study, but Benninger speculates that the nature of hay fever symptoms leave people feeling, well, unsexy. "[When you have] difficulty breathing, teary eyes, and a runny nose, even the simple act of kissing becomes unappealing," Benninger says.

In addition, allergies cause fatigue and tend to impact sufferers' sleep. "When they go to bed, they want to sleep, not be amorous," Benninger says of people with hay fever.

Allergies also affect people's ability to smell. "We all know that smell and pheromones are a big part of sexuality, even in humans," Benninger says. It would follow, therefore, that if a person can't smell, their interest level in sex might decrease.

"It makes sense," Benninger says. "But nobody has ever talked about it. They always talk about other symptoms and activity. This is the first time that there has ever been a large-scale study showing that it makes a difference."

If your sex life has been put on ice because of nasal allergies, here's good news: You don't have to limit your lovemaking to the seasons when your allergies don't flare. Allergy treatments have come a long way, and help is available.

"Avoidance is probably the first and most important treatment of allergies," Benninger says. Figure out what you're allergic to and take steps to avoid it. An allergist can perform testing, which is simple and reliable, to identify the culprit(s) and help you get relief.

Some of those culprits may be near and dear to you - pets are a common allergy trigger.

He says that as many as 70% of people in the United States sleep with their pets. Even if you don't cuddle up with Fido, if you allow him to spend the whole day sleeping on your pillow, you may have a flare-up of symptoms at bedtime. Allowing pets to spend time on your bed increases the odds of allergic symptoms when it's time for you and your partner to become intimate. Better to keep your bedroom door closed during the day and pets out.

If you're allergic to ragweed or grass, Benninger advises that you keep the windows in your bedroom closed so that the pollen doesn't get in. "You'll sleep better if you don't have that level of exposure in your bed at night," he says.

Bassett suggests setting your air conditioner on recirculate to keep pollens out. And don't forget to check the air conditioning filter during high pollen seasons for the highest level of efficiency.

It's also a good idea to shampoo and shower nightly to rinse the pollens from your skin and hair, and to change your clothes before entering your bedroom to reduce pollen levels, Bassett says.

Even if you don't think you have food allergies, it's important to watch what you eat. As many as one in three seasonal allergy sufferers allergic to tree pollen may experience 'oral allergy syndrome' (tingling of the mouth or itchy throat) after ingesting [certain] foods, Bassett says.

The cross-reaction can be caused by the proteins in fruits and pollens. Tree pollen allergies can be exacerbated, for example, by foods such as almonds, apples, apricots, carrots, celery, cherries, kiwi, parsley, peaches, and pears.

Allergic to grass? Watch for reactions when you eat melons, tomatoes, and oranges. "Often, well-cooked, canned, or frozen food offenders cause no reaction," Bassett says.

Over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl, Alavert, Zyrtec, or Claritin, along with nasal sprays and eye drops, can be helpful when you're suffering from common hay fever symptoms. But there are drawbacks to medicating yourself.

"People go to over-the-counter medications all the time and take an allergy medication when they have a sinus infection or a cold," Bassett says. "If you have ongoing issues, you should speak with a doctor about what the right treatment is for you and if you need to take it every day."

Some over-the-counter medications can also have undesired effects on your sex life. Anneliese Curtis Place, a 42-year-old writer from Santa Barbara, Calif., has had hay fever for at least 15 years, and regularly took allergy medications like Benadryl and Sudafed to manage her symptoms. She had never made the connection between allergies and a diminished interest in sex until an acquaintance made mention of it.

"A friend's sister asked [a group of us] if we realized that these medications dry out more than just sinuses," Curtis Place said, referring to vaginal dryness. That's when it clicked for her. "You don't feel like having sex if you have a runny nose, or feel like you have a head cold," she said. "Then once that's cleared up and you're trying to have sex and it's painful, it's a real killer on the libido."

Benninger says that antihistamines can be drying and sedating. Those effects may help calm some of your allergy symptoms, but they won't do much for your sex life.

"Benadryl makes you feel fatigued and Sudafed makes you feel wired. There are other options you can use to treat people that can [address] those symptoms without the adverse side effects of some of the over-the-counter medications."

For a nonsedating over-the-counter antihistamine, medications such as Claritin can be fairly effective for many people, Benninger says, adding that if you're really congested, a little bit of Afrin spray works well. Just don't use it on a routine basis - no more than a few nights a week - to avoid building up a tolerance to the medication.

There are many prescription medications that effectively manage symptoms that won't put you to sleep or dry you out. A host of prescription antihistamines and nasal sprays are available, which are effective at decreasing nasal symptoms, as well as some of the eye symptoms associated with allergies. Products such as Flonase, Nasonex, Nasacort, and Rhinacort are all fairly comparable in effectiveness in reducing congestion, sneezing, itching, and watery eyes, Benninger notes. There are also anti-allergy eye drops available, which treat both seasonal and year-round allergies.

"If symptoms are bad enough, there is immunotherapy, which is [allergy] shots," Benninger says.

Also in the works is sublingual therapy, which involves placing the antigen (antibody generator) under the tongue. "You won't need shots anymore. You put the antigen under the tongue and you will be able to do it at home," Benninger says. He predicts that within the next two years or so, allergy shots will no longer be needed because of the availability of sublingual therapy.

Allergy sufferers can take additional steps to reduce the level of allergens from their immediate environment.

"You can focus treatment on the amount of allergy load, or the exposure to the allergy, and limit it," Benninger says. "If you're allergic to dust, you can [remove] carpets, and use filters. You're better off with blinds than curtains."

In addition, treatments that help to clear out the nose are helpful. Sinus rinses, including Neti pots, or just a homemade mixture of salt and water that can be used to clear the nasal passages can be very helpful in relieving symptoms.

Bottom line: "Allergies are 100% treatable with the right combination of prevention, environmental modification, medication, or allergy shots. If you do all three, people for the most part, do very well with allergies," Bassett says. "With proper treatment, we can help people feel better and look better."

That's not just good news for your allergies, but for your sex life as well.