Post-orgasmic illness syndrome is without a doubt one of the most mysterious diseases we've ever come across. This currently untreatable condition, called POIS for short, was first identified in a 2002 study by Marcel D. Waldinger, a Dutch neuropsychiatrist and Drexel University professor or pharmacology. POIS causes men to experience flu-like symptoms after most or all of their ejaculations. The onset of symptoms ranges from immediately to hours after orgasm, and the severity of symptoms can vary, but they can include congestion, fatigue, feverishness, itchiness, irritability, memory and concentration issues, and muscle weakness — and can last for between two to seven days.
Most accounts describe POIS as possibly caused by an allergy to one’s own semen. But according to Waldinger, that’s not exactly accurate. Semen allergies are their own thing: First identified in women in 1958, they’re caused by a reaction to proteins in semen. “POIS is not an allergy,” says Waldinger, “but a systemic auto-immune reaction expressing itself in multiple physical and mental problems.” Both are caused by immune system overreactions, but this means that POIS is triggered by a different mechanism that is harder to pin down.
Waldinger once tried to treat POIS (in two of the 45 Dutch patients suffering from the condition he’d identified) using a method designed to reduce allergy symptoms — which he credits with causing the POIS-as-allergy confusion. Basically, he injected the men with increasing doses of their own semen in their skin on a regular basis for years, which is almost exactly how doctors treat semen allergies. There’ve also been attempts to reduce symptoms with allergy medications. Yet despite promising results published in a 2011 paper, Waldinger says he’s abandoned this tactic, which he no longer thinks has any real promise, and has no other idea for a cure in sight.
“We are performing fundamental research into the underlying immunological mechanism to facilitate the development of a drug to treat POIS,” he says. But “this may take a long time.”
One of the biggest problems facing Waldinger and other doctors who’ve started looking into POIS in recent years is a chronic lack of funding. That’s par for the course for rare diseases — and it’s especially difficult to convince people to give to research funds when no one’s clear on how many people have POIS.
We don’t know how many people have POIS, in part because it’s still not a well-known disorder, meaning anyone reporting symptoms is likely to see them explained away as something else. Even doctors who acknowledge POIS might have trouble diagnosing it, though, given the limited data to go on, and the variability in symptoms and their onset after ejaculation. Most importantly, though, many men who may have some kind of POIS-like symptom likely never report it due to the same sexual-cultural shame that suppresses good data on all kinds of sexual disorders.
This just means that right now the best thing anyone can do to understand and combat POIS (and help a small chunk men to avoid unwanted celibacy, to which many sufferers apparently resort) is to step forward if they have POIS-like symptoms — as some have started to do. The more vocal and visible POIS becomes, the more impetus there will be for funding research, and the easier it will be to get a diagnosis and access to whatever treatments are eventually developed from your average doctor. So to every man out there, if you feel something terrible happening to your body after you orgasm, say something. You owe it to your fellow man to own up to orgasm-induced sickness.