Healthy Sex for Women

Written by the Healthline Editorial Team | Published on September 10, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on September 10, 2014

Healthy Sex for Women

A pleasurable, satisfying sex life is good for your health. Sex can reduce emotional stress. It can be a bonding experience within a relationship. It can also be a great deal of fun.

However, sex has risks. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can cause emotional and physical discomfort. They can also cause serious medical problems like infertility. Chronic pelvic pain can affect your enjoyment not just of sex but also of daily life. Sexual dysfunction can make sex seem like more of a chore than a pleasure.

Having a healthy sex life takes work. Fortunately, most of the time it’s easy to improve your sexual health.

Protect Yourself from Sexually Transmitted Diseases

If you are a sexually active woman, you are at risk of contracting an STD. Your risk is higher if you’ve had 15 lifetime partners than if you’ve had only one. However, it’s possible to contract an STD the first time you have sex. You can even contract an STD if your partner is also a virgin. It’s rare, but it can happen. Many children contract oral herpes from their families while growing up. They can then pass it on to a partner during oral sex.

There are ways to protect yourself from STDs. They may not be 100 percent successful all the time, but they can help.

Get Vaccinated

Currently two types of STDs are preventable by vaccine. These are the human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis. Two HPV vaccines are available. Cervarix protects against the two types of HPV that cause most cases of cervical cancer. Gardasil protects against those two types as well as the two types that cause the majority of genital warts. Both vaccines are most effective when given before a woman starts having sex. You can still get vaccinated up through your late 20s.

A vaccine is also available against hepatitis B. It’s normally given during infancy. Hepatitis B causes liver disease. It can be transmitted through sexual activity.

A vaccine for hepatitis A is available as well. Hepatitis A is not usually spread during sex, but it can be transmitted during oral-anal contact. The vaccine is recommended for all children at age 1. 

Practice Safe Sex

Safe sex is very effective at preventing STDs that spread through infected secretions, such as HIV. It’s less effective at preventing STDs that are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. However, it can still reduce your risk.

Try to use latex or polyurethane condoms and dental dams every time you have sex. There is always an advantage to using protection. Consistent use of barriers can reduce the transmission of STIs during:

  • oral sex
  • vaginal sex
  • anal sex

Many women do not realize that oral sex can transmit disease. However, a number of STDs can be transmitted during oral sex. These include:

  • syphilis
  • HPV
  • herpes

A recent rise in the increase of oral cancer is thought to be due to the transmission of HPV during oral sex.

Get Screened for STDs

Regular STD testing can reduce the long-term consequences of an infection. Left untreated, bacterial diseases such as gonorrhea can have serious health consequences, including infertility. Screening can help to prevent such outcomes.

Screening can also reduce your risk of contracting an STD. Make a date to get tested with a new partner before starting a sexual relationship. Then you will each know if you are putting the other at risk.

STD screening is a good idea for anyone who is sexually active. STDs can affect individuals of any age. Even people in monogamous marriages can end up with an STD if both partners weren’t screened before they got together.

Have Regular Pap Smears

Pap smears are a routine part of women’s healthcare. These tests detect early signs of cervical cancer. Precancerous changes can be treated before they become serious problems.

Most cases of cervical cancer are caused by infection with HPV. Therefore, practicing safer sex can reduce your risk of cervical cancer. HPV vaccination can reduce your risk as well. However, there are many types of cancer-causing HPV. Not all of them are covered by the vaccine. Regular Pap smears are important even for women who have received the HPV vaccine.

Invasive cervical cancer, and its treatment, can have negative effects on your sex life and fertility. It’s better to catch cervical changes early than wait for them to cause damage.

Tell Your Doctor About Pelvic Pain

Women often assume that pelvic pain is a normal part of womanhood. They have been told that menstruation is supposed to hurt. Therefore, they may not discuss pelvic pain with their doctor.

However, women should not have to live with serious pelvic pain. Often severe pain during menses is a sign of a potentially treatable health problem. Such problems can also cause problems with fertility and pain during sex.

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is an overgrowth of the lining of the uterus. This lining is called the endometrium. It’s the source of blood and tissue during menstruation. It also nourishes the growing fetus.

When a woman has endometriosis, the endometrium grows outside the uterus. It can attach to other organs and the inside of the abdomen. This can be extremely painful. Symptoms of endometriosis include:

  • severe menstrual pain
  • pain during sex
  • pain during bowel movements
  • heavy bleeding
  • bleeding between periods

Pain from endometriosis can often be helped with treatment. Treatment depends on whether you want to have children. Options include:

  • pain medication
  • hormone therapy
  • surgery to remove the excess tissue
  • hysterectomy (removal of the uterus)

Fibroids

Fibroids are noncancerous tumors of the uterus. According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 75 percent of women have fibroids. However, most women will never need treatment. Fibroids are not necessarily painful or problematic. They do not increase your risk of cancer. Large fibroids may affect your ability to have children.

Fibroids can affect your sex life if they cause:

  • pelvic pain
  • pain during sex
  • problems with menstrual bleeding.

If treatment is necessary, several options are available. They will not necessarily affect your ability to have children.

Find a Way to Enjoy Sex

Female sexual dysfunction is common. Many women have problems with their sex lives. Effective treatments are available for most common forms of female sexual dysfunction.

There are four main types of female sexual dysfunction.

Lack of Interest in Sex

There are many reasons why a woman may not be interested in sex. She may be too tired. She may be annoyed with her partner. Her hormone levels may be out of balance and affecting her interest.

If you have experienced a sudden lack of interest in sex, talk to your doctor. There may be a biological cause. Your doctor can also refer you to a sex therapist for counseling. If you want to be interested in sex, you can usually learn how to make that happen.

Difficulty Becoming Aroused

Difficulties becoming aroused, or maintaining arousal, are not uncommon. These problems may be medically based. They may also be based in relationship problems. Sexual beliefs can affect your ability to become aroused.

If you are concerned about problems with arousal, talk to a doctor. Help may be available. Some arousal problems respond best to medical therapy. Other women just need help with stress reduction and improving their relationships.

Painful Sex

Sexual intercourse shouldn’t be painful. If you are having pain during sex, talk to your doctor. There are several potential causes of sexual pain. These include:

  • endometriosis
  • fibroids
  • vaginismus
  • vulvodynia

It’s very important to get help for painful intercourse as soon as possible. If not, fear of pain may lead you to clench up during sex. This can make sex even more painful. It can be a vicious cycle.

Painful sex can be treated in a variety of ways, depending on the cause. When you talk to your doctor about your problem, be prepared to discuss if you have pain:

  • during penetration
  • when touched on the outside of your vulva
  • because your vagina is clenching uncontrollably
  • during deep penetration

The details are important. They can help your doctor diagnose underlying problems that may be causing your pain.

Problems with Orgasm

Problems with orgasm are often the easiest type of sexual dysfunction to treat. Many women who can’t orgasm simply aren’t getting the right type of stimulation during sex. There is a common misconception that women should be able to orgasm from vaginal intercourse. However, the majority of women need direct clitoral stimulation to climax.

If you have difficulty reaching orgasm, you may benefit from seeing a sex therapist. A sex therapist can help you learn how to have an orgasm. Educational books and videos are also available to help you find your orgasm.

Choose When (and If) to Have Children

If you are a woman who has sex with men, it’s important to know your options for contraception. Trying to get pregnant, or worry about unwanted pregnancy, takes a toll on many women’s sex lives.

Reversible Contraception

If you think you might want to have children eventually, but don’t want to have them now, reversible contraception is the way to go. Contraceptive options vary greatly in convenience, ease of use, and cost. They range from the cheap, use-when-needed condom to an intrauterine device (IUD), which can last for up to 10 years.

Other contraceptive options include:

  • birth control pills
  • hormonal patches
  • hormonal rings
  • female condoms
  • cervical caps
  • diaphragms
  • contraceptive sponges

Talk to your doctor about which option is right for you. The effectiveness varies greatly. So does the ease of use.

However, there’s one thing every woman should remember. There are lots of ways to prevent pregnancy. Only condoms can effectively reduce the risk of STDs.

Sterilization

If you never plan to have children, you may choose to undergo sterilization. Female sterilization methods work by blocking the Fallopian tubes. The sperm cannot reach the egg. This means a pregnancy cannot be achieved.

If you are in a couple, talk to your partner about your options. Sterilization is generally less painful and invasive for men than women.

Some sterilization procedures are theoretically reversible. However, reversal does not always work. Therefore, you should treat the procedure as permanent.

Don’t Let Age Slow You Down

The best way to keep your sex life healthy is to keep having sex. Regular sexual activity helps to keep the vagina healthy. However, even if you haven’t had sex in a while, age doesn’t have to hinder your sex life. You just have to keep certain factors in mind.

Balance Your Hormones

The perimenopausal period occurs five to 10 years before menopause. During this period, your hormones may fluctuate wildly. This may cause:

  • a lower libido
  • irregular periods
  • vaginal dryness

A low-dose birth control pill or hormonal IUD may be able to help. However, you shouldn’t use hormones if you are still trying to get pregnant.

As you move into menopause, your hormone levels will continue to change. A lack of estrogen can lead to vaginal atrophy and dryness. This can be helped with hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or local estrogen creams.

Physical Changes

Many women experience vaginal dryness after menopause. Their vaginal tissues may also become more delicate and sensitive. This can increase the risk of contracting an STD. It can also make sex more painful.

Problems with vaginal dryness can often be helped with sexual lubricants. Sometimes these lubricants can be used in combination with an estrogen cream or suppository. The estrogen helps to restore elasticity to the vaginal tissues.

Sexual Changes

Women’s arousal patterns change as they age. It may take longer for them to become aroused. They may have less lubrication. On the other hand, no longer having to worry about pregnancy can be freeing. Some women enjoy sex even more once they’ve gone past menopause.

Sexual patterns for men change with age as well. Women who have sex with male partners may notice that it takes longer for their partners to get an erection. The erection may not be as firm as it used to be. However, many men may be able to last longer during intercourse.

Your sex life may change, but you’re never too old to enjoy sex.

Don’t Forget to Play Safe

With the increase in erectile dysfunction (ED) drugs, active sex lives are on the increase in older populations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has led to an increase in STDs among older adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HIV is a growing problem in mature adults. Individuals over the age of 55 accounted for 19 percent of people living with HIV in the United States in 2010.

Many older adults aren’t aware of safe sex techniques. Condoms and lubricant should be used during anal and vaginal intercourse. Condoms or dental dams can be used during oral sex.

Safe sex is not necessary if you’re in a long-term relationship where both partners have tested negative. In all other cases, it’s an excellent idea. 

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