But allergies are more than an annoyance. In fact, they can have a major impact on your quality of life. Studies have shown, for instance, that allergies can make it hard to get a good night’s sleep. And the poor concentration and daytime drowsiness that result from allergy-disturbed sleep have been linked to poor job performance in adults and academic problems in children.
And now there’s evidence that allergies can put a big dent in your sex life. How big? In a study of 400 people with allergic rhinitis (hay fever), 83% said that allergies affected their sex lives at least occasionally. Seventeen percent said that allergies always or almost always had an effect of their sex lives.
Given the magnitude of the problem, “you start to wonder if all of this affects people’s relationships,” says Michael Benninger, MD, chairman of the Head and Neck Institute at The Cleveland Clinic and one of the study's authors. If allergies are putting a dent in your sex life, here's how to fight back.
Why allergies affect sex
Benninger says some allergy sufferers may simply be too tired to have sex. That could be because they’re sleep-deprived or because they’re fatigued by the ongoing war their bodies are waging on the inflammation associated with allergies.
But even when fatigue isn’t to blame, symptoms like nasal congestion or a runny nose might be enough to put a damper on desire. “It’s not very sexy when you keep sneezing during sexual activity,” Benninger says. “If you’re congested, you might have to stop to take a breath in the middle of a kiss. And no one wants their nose to drip on the other person.”
Self-consciousness about symptoms like puffy eyes or “allergic shiners,” the dark circles under the eyes that allergies sometimes cause, can also be a downer. “Feeling embarrassed by their symptoms may lead people to avoid intimate contact,” says Clifford W. Bassett, MD, assistant clinical professor of medicine and otolaryngology at Long Island College Hospital/SUNY Downstate in Brooklyn, N.Y. “A lot of women, in particular, seem to be embarrassed by symptoms that are not well controlled.”
Finally, there’s the matter of smell. Sexual activity is governed in part through the action of sex pheromones, chemical substances people’s bodies give off in order to attract potential mates. If your nose is stopped up and you can't sense the pheromones, experts say, that may rein in your amorous activity.
“Olfaction is one of our most complicated senses,” says Timothy L. Smith, professor of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. “We’ve heard patients with allergies coming in and saying that their sense of smell is affected and that their sex lives have been affected by this.”
In other words, if you can’t detect the subtle scents your partner is giving off, you might not feel much like having sex.
Controlling allergy symptoms
No matter what’s behind allergies’ sex-squashing effect, experts say you may be able to improve life between the sheets if you take steps to control allergy symptoms. They point to a 1995 study by Turkish researchers showing that, among people suffering from chronic sinusitis (which causes symptoms similar to those caused by allergies), treating symptoms seemed to improve sexual satisfaction.
Doctors agree that the first line of defense should be limiting your exposure to allergy-causing substances (allergens), such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and molds that grow in soil and inside homes.
When pollen counts are high, spend as much time as you can indoors with the windows shut and the air conditioner on. When you do go out, wearing oversized sunglasses can help keep pollen out of your eyes -- especially on windy days. Driving somewhere? Keep the windows closed and run the A/C.
To check pollen and mold levels in your area, go to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology web site.
Change your clothes after coming in on high-pollen days, and wash your hair at night before going to bed. It may help to clean eyelids with tear-free shampoo. To get rid of excessive mucus, use a saline nasal spray or a Neti pot to irrigate your nose.
What else? Replace allergen-trapping curtains with shades, and instead of rugs and carpeting, go with floor coverings like wood or tile, which are easier to clean. A HEPA air filter can help, too. And what about Rover? “Seventy percent of pet owners sleep with their pets, and 54% of people are allergic to their pets,” says Benninger. If you're allergic, keep the four-legged members of the family out of the bedroom.
No matter who sleeps in your bed, wash bedding frequently in water that’s at least 130 F. Encase pillows and mattresses in covers that are impermeable to dust mites. “If you’ve had the same pillow for 10 years, it might be time to get a new one,” says Smith.
Not sure what’s causing your allergies? Have an allergy specialist perform a skin test to pinpoint the culprit. It’s safe and takes less than 20 minutes.
When more help is needed
Recent studies show that allergy shots (immunotherapy) may be 90% effective at controlling allergy symptoms. But because it can take months to become fully effective, immunotherapy makes most sense for patients with severe or unusually persistent allergies -- and people who cannot take other allergy medications.
Fortunately, allergy sufferers can often get substantial relief from over-the-counter and prescription pills, nasal sprays, and eye drops. If your symptoms are already making you too tired to have sex, consider one of the newer, nonsedating antihistamines. Talk to your doctor about whether prescription medication for your allergies might help.
The bottom line is that allergies can almost always be controlled. That’s something to remember next time you turn your back on your partner in bed -- or your partner turns away from you. “Just because someone with allergies has a bad sex life doesn’t mean that their sex lives will improve if they get their allergies treated,” says Smith. “But it certainly won’t hurt.”