Sexual health includes a range of issues concerning human intimacy—issues that affect us physically, mentally, and emotionally. From sexual functioning and awareness of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) to family planning and the role of physical intimacy in healthy relationships, understanding the various aspects of sexual health can enhance your intimate relationships and your individual well-being and protect your health.
In a healthy relationship, sexual intimacy—along with love, affection, and mutual respect—can help draw two people closer together. There are, however, risks and complications associated with human sexuality; to minimize these and emphasize the positive aspects of physical intimacy, it’s important to understand how to reduce certain risks (STDs, for example) and to work through complications (such as erectile dysfunction or decrease in sex drive). Education and open communication between you and your partner are a good place to start.
Sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, are diseases that are transmitted through intimate sexual contact with another person who has the disease. It is estimated that more than 13 million people are affected by STDs every year.
STDs are divided into two main groups:
Symptoms of STDs vary depending on the type of infection. There are, however, some common warning signs that may indicate an STD. The following symptoms should be discussed with a healthcare provider:
There is a risk of getting an STD with any type of intimate sexual contact. You can, however, reduce your risk by practicing what’s known as safe sex. Safe sex practices include using a condom anytime you have vaginal, oral, or anal intercourse; knowing your partner’s STD and overall health status; and having regular medical check-ups (this is particularly important for people who have more than one sexual partner).
Sex drive or desire, also known as libido, can rise and fall for a number of reasons. Causes may be psychological, emotional, medical, or physical. For women, sex drive may vary according to their menstrual cycle, with a sometimes elevated drive occurring during the days before ovulation. Others factors affecting sex drive include:
If you’re experiencing a loss of or reduction in sex drive, it may have placed strain on your relationship. By identifying and understanding the cause(s) of your diminished drive, you can address the issue as appropriate (make lifestyle changes where necessary or seek medical help, for example) and improve your sex drive.
Erectile dysfunction (ED) refers to a man’s inability to get or maintain an erection. Causes of ED may include disease, injury, or side effects of drugs, and involve injury to the nerves or impaired blood flow to the penis. Incidence of ED increases with age.
The first steps in the treatment of ED often involve healthy lifestyle changes. Measures like quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, losing excess weight, and increasing physical activity may help. If it’s suspected that ED is a side effect of certain medications, changing these drugs or the dosage may help restore sexual function. Additional approaches to treat ED include psychotherapy and behavioral modification, oral and injected drugs, vacuum devices, and surgically implanted devices. Surgery involving veins or arteries is considered in rare cases.
Menopause (the natural transition in a woman’s life when menstruation ends) can be associated with physical changes that may affect her feelings about sexuality as well as her sexual functioning. If you’ve gone through or are going through menopause now, be aware of the following potential changes in your sex life:
Pain during intercourse. Sex may become painful for many reasons for women of any age. After menopause, sexual discomfort may be caused by lower estrogen levels and subsequent effects on the vagina. Because estrogen affects the vagina’s ability to secrete lubricant, expand and contract, and grow new cells, once levels are diminished—which is accompanied by diminishing blood flow over time—the vagina and vulva can atrophy. As a result, intercourse may become painful and can be followed by a burning sensation or bleeding. There are, however, ways to manage atrophy to the vagina and vulva; estrogen treatments (pills, patches, and creams) as well as over-the-counter lubricants may help.
Difficulty reaching orgasm. The drop in estrogen levels after menopause can also affect a woman’s ability to orgasm; this is due to changes to the nerves and blood supply to the clitoris. A healthcare professional may be able to recommend methods to improve lubrication, blood flow, and sensation.