A few weeks ago, on an episode of the long-running British comedy panel show QI, host Stephen Fry stumped the contestants with a question about postorgasmic illness syndrome, or POIS. After sex, Fry claimed, patients report "flu-like symptoms, rashes, itching, exhaustion, and concentration difficulties."
"It happens to men, and it's believed to be the result of being allergic to your own semen," Fry said, setting off my bullshit alarm a little. Then he added that the cure is "multiple subcutaneous injections of your own semen."
I'm no expert, but I've busted an ejaculation myth or two in my time, and all of this sounded like insane, superstitious bullshit.
But as it turns out, it isn't. "Yes you can be allergic to your own semen," Dr. Richard Santucci, head of urology at Detroit Receiving Hospital, told VICE in an email, "and yes the treatment may be semen injections."
In reality, POIS is a rare but recognized medical condition. It was discovered in 2002 in the Netherlands, and far from being the hilarious real-life Farrelly Brothers movie it sounds like, it apparently reduces sufferers to zombies for about a week after an orgasm. According to a paper on the syndrome, written by POIS discoverers Marcel Waldinger and Dave H. Schweitzer, "the symptoms are so severe that sexual activity is avoided."
A man mentioned in a 2013 Egyptian case study is reported to have had "a strong desire and rigid erections," and even managed to have kids, but his POIS symptoms worsened with age, and he even showed symptoms when he had a "nocturnal emission" (a.k.a. a wet dream). In other words, when coming gives someone the flu, that person eventually tries to stop coming, but even that doesn't stop the nightmare.
As you might expect, the syndrome also has its own subreddit where sufferers exchange stories and attempt to diagnose one another. One anonymous user there sounds pretty desperate, describing POIS as a temporary mix between depression and delirium: "It's simply like having your soul sucked out of you," he wrote, adding, "your brain won't work well, and you're just kind of slow."
That user reported being diagnosed with "severe depression triggered by orgasm," but said he was not satisfied with the diagnosis, nor the treatments for it. "If you have any suggestions as to what else I might try, whether it's a different branch of medicine, some sort of specific drug/treatment, or woo-woo voodoo alternative medicine, I'm interested to hear it," he wrote.
In 2011, Waldinger developed an explanation for POIS, and a specific kind of treatment: He became convinced that it was an allergy to one's own semen. Waldinger studied 47 afflicted men, and reasoned that they "didn't feel ill when they masturbated without ejaculating, but as soon as the semen came from the testes…after that they became ill, sometimes within just a few minutes," leading him to conclude the problem must be the semen itself. Skin tests were administered, and 88 percent of the afflicted responded positively.
The evidence for the allergy hypothesis is pretty striking, according to Santucci. He compared it to a known allergy to semen in women. "Women most often have vaginal irritation but a notable few have systemic flu-like symptoms, and a rare few have potentially deadly anaphylaxis," he said.
The treatment, according to Waldinger: injections of extremely diluted semen under the skin, designed to trigger a small amount of the reaction, with the concentration of semen increased over over a period of between one and three years, with the goal of eventually achieving a reduction in symptoms.
Santucci again compared this to a similar treatment regimen for women with diagnosed semen allergies. "Less serious cases can be desensitized with unprotected sex over time, but may require injections of the partners semen," he wrote in an email.
You might want to think twice if you're considering semen therapy at home, though. "If you are highly allergic this can kill you," according to Santucci.
But research that attributes POIS symptoms to semen allergy is not yet definitive, and there are alternative theories. Earlier this year, doctors in China documented the first known case of POIS in that country. The patient was given a skin test, but so were three "healthy" subjects with no POIS symptoms. They all had positive reactions to the skin test, suggesting that false positives may have been rampant in Waldinger's research.
There are other possible explanations. One paper brings up hormone problems and hyperglycemia as possible causes of POIS. A 2010 paper in the Journal of Sexual Medicine suggests POIS may be caused by a "spectrum" of illnesses, each requiring separate medical attention.
A reliable answer seemingly can't come soon enough for the Redditor who has written at length about his affliction. It sounds like he's got it pretty rough. "My sexual experience has been incredibly limited, but the only time I orgasmed with a girl, unsurprisingly, I just got really scramble-brained and pretty much had to leave ASAP. That was pretty embarrassing," he wrote.
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