Women's Sexual Health
Healthy sex is just one aspect of sexual health. Sexual health encompasses the entire spectrum of health and well-being of an individual. It includes all the following aspects in relation to sexuality:
The scope of sexual health is wide. It includes not only individuals, couples, and families, but also communities and whole cultures.
It involves topics such as:
- sexual orientation and gender identity
- knowledge of anatomy, reproductive health, and fertility
- understanding the risks involved in sexual activity
- respectful relationships free of coercion or violence
- pleasurable and safe sexual experiences
- access to good healthcare
- access to educational resources about the practicalities of self-care as it relates to sexual activities
Read on to learn about these areas of sexual health:
- safer sex practices
- getting screened regularly for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- choosing vaccines and medications
- using contraception properly
- getting medical treatment for reproductive health issues
- what to do about low libido
If you’re sexually active, it places you at an increased risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), which are now more commonly known as STIs.
Vaginal, anal, and oral sex all put you at risk for sexually transmitted infections.
Risk increases as the number of sexual partners increases, though it’s possible to contract an STI the first time you have sex with a partner.
However, knowing how to protect yourself and your partner(s) can help reduce your risk for contracting an STI. Proper protection during sexual activity can also help prevent the transmission of STIs.
STI prevention is an important part of sexual health, but there’s much more to sexual health than just being free of disease.
Sexual health is a state of well-being encompassing many elements, including:
- having a good understanding of sex
- engaging in a consensual and positive relationship with your sexual partner
- enjoying the sex you’re having
While keeping this bigger picture of sexual health in mind, read on to learn about best practices to help keep you and your sexual partner protected from contracting or transmitting STIs.
Practice safer sex
Safer sex practices often involve using barriers in your body to help prevent you and your partner from sharing bodily fluids. Some of these barrier methods include:
- external condoms
- internal condoms
- dental dams
These methods have been shown to be effective at preventing STIs, which are transmitted through bodily fluids such as:
- vaginal secretions
Barrier methods can help protect you and your partner from STIs such as:
- hepatitis A, B, and C
Barrier methods are less effective at preventing STIs that are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, but they can still help reduce your risk.
Examples of STIs transmitted via skin-to-skin contact include:
- HPV (human papilloma virus)
- HSV (herpes simplex virus)
Pubic lice can also be passed from one person to another through this method.
When selecting barrier methods, opt for latex or polyurethane condoms and dental dams. And always use them during any kind of sexual contact or penetration to protect you and your partner.
Using condoms, dental dams, and gloves can help reduce the transmission of STIs during:
- oral sex
- vaginal sex
- anal sex
It’s important to note that some STIs can be transmitted during oral sex, including:
Get screened for STIs
Screening can help reduce the risk of contracting an STI. Regular STI testing can help reduce the long-term effects of an infection.
Left untreated, bacterial STIs such as gonorrhea and chlamydia can have serious negative effects on your health, including infertility. Screening can help prevent these complications.
Make a date with a new partner to get tested before starting a sexual relationship. That way, you’ll each know if you’re putting each other at risk, and treatment can be given if appropriate.
STI screening is recommended for anyone who’s sexually active. STIs can affect individuals of any age or relationship status.
Get regular Pap smears
Pap smears are a routine part of women’s healthcare to check for cervical cancer and are recommended starting at age 21 years.
This test detects early signs of cervical changes that could lead to cervical cancer if left untreated. Precancerous changes can be followed up and treated before they become serious.
HPV causes nearly all cases of cervical cancer. Therefore, practicing safer sex can help reduce your risk for cervical cancer.
HPV vaccination can help reduce the risk as well. There are many strains of cancer-causing HPV, which is why vaccination, practicing safer sex, and regular Pap smears are all necessary.
Invasive cervical cancer and its treatment can have negative effects on your overall health, especially your sexual health.
Also, in many cases it can result in infertility. It’s important to identify cervical changes early and talk with your doctor about them. Taking this step can help prevent the potential for further complications.
Women often assume that pelvic pain, like cramping, is normal. They’ve been told that menstruation is supposed to hurt. Therefore, they may not discuss their discomfort with their doctor.
You should not have to live with serious pelvic pain or abdominal cramps. Severe pain during your period may be a sign of an underlying gynecological or gastrointestinal health issue.
Endometriosis is a painful condition in which tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus.
The uterus lining is called the endometrium. It’s the source of blood and tissue during menstruation. It’s also needed to nourish a growing fetus.
When you have endometriosis, endometrium-like tissue deposits onto organs and tissues throughout the abdomen and pelvis. This can be extremely painful.
Symptoms of endometriosis can include:
- severe menstrual pain
- pain during sex
- pain during bowel movements
- heavy bleeding
- bleeding between periods
Pain from endometriosis can often be treated. Treatment varies according to other health conditions you may have. Sometimes, the treatment depends on your family planning goals.
Treatment options for endometriosis include:
- anti-inflammatory medications
- hormone therapy
- surgery to remove the excess tissue
- hysterectomy (removal of the uterus)
Fibroids are noncancerous tumors in the uterus. Research shows that up to 77 percent of women have fibroids, according to a review published in 2016. However, most women will never need treatment.
Fibroids aren’t necessarily painful or problematic, and they don’t increase your risk for cancer. Fibroids may contribute to infertility, but many women are able to become pregnant after treatment for fibroids.
If you have fibroids and you become pregnant, your healthcare team will monitor your fibroids. Sometimes they grow during pregnancy and can affect your baby’s movement into the fetal position.
Fibroid-related symptoms may include:
- pelvic pain
- pain during sex
- heavy or painful menstrual bleeding
- fertility issues
If treatment for your fibroids becomes necessary, several options are available. Your doctor can help you decide which method is best for you.
Some sexual health issues affect sexual activity and libido.
Lack of interest in sex
There are many reasons why someone may have a reduced interest in sex. Possible causes for decreased libido in women include:
- new medication
- chronic medical conditions
- pregnancy, after delivery period, and breastfeeding
- anxiety or depression
- relationship concerns
If you’ve experienced a sudden lack of interest in sex, talk with your doctor. There may be an identifiable cause.
Your doctor can help you create a treatment plan for many of these conditions. They can also make a referral to a sex therapist or other therapist for counseling.
Couples therapy may be beneficial, too. If you’re bothered by a decreased sex drive, there are a variety of methods and treatments that can help.
Sexual intercourse shouldn’t be painful. If you’re having pain during sex, talk with your doctor. There are several potential causes of sexual pain. These include:
- vaginal dryness
- past negative sexual experiences
Painful sex can be treated in a variety of ways, depending on the cause. When you talk with your doctor about your problem, be prepared to discuss if you have vaginal discharge or other vaginal issues, or pain that occurs:
- during penetration
- when touched on the outside of your vulva
- after sex
- during deep penetration
The details are important. They can help your doctor diagnose underlying problems that may be causing your pain.