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Sexual difficulties

Female doctor with stethoscope draped around her neck and seated at her office desk while listening to an older female patient

Learn more about men's sexual health in our special section on Men's health – Impotence and loss of libido

Menopause and aging bring physical and emotional changes that can affect a woman's sex life. As a woman ages, her vagina becomes shorter and narrower. The walls of the vagina also become thinner and a little stiffer. Most women will have less vaginal lubrication as they get older because estrogen levels drop greatly after menopause. Estrogen helps keep the vagina moist. Changing estrogen levels also might affect a woman's desire for sex. Other factors that could affect sex drive or function in aging women include:

  • Illness or disability: Problems such as arthritis, chronic pain, and stroke can make it physically hard to have sex. Women with heart disease may have problems with orgasm or worry that sex is not safe. Chronic or serious health problems also can affect a person's interest in sex.
  • Medicines: Many commonly prescribed drugs have sexual side effects. For instance, some drugs used to treat depression can suppress libido.
  • Surgery: Women who have undergone breast cancer surgery, for example, may feel less desirable or have problems becoming aroused.

If you are having these problems, you are not alone. The three most common sexual issues reported by women are:

  • Not being in the mood for sex
  • Trouble becoming aroused (vaginal dryness) and having orgasms
  • Pain during sex or sexual activity

Talk to your partner about any emotional or physical changes that affect your sex life. Together, you might find ways to overcome any barriers to enjoying intimacy.

If you're having vaginal dryness, try using an over-the-counter lubricant. Keep in mind that oil-based products, like Vaseline, can damage condoms. If lubricants don't help, talk to your doctor about low-dose estrogen products, such as vaginal creams, rings, and tablets.

If you are never in the mood for sex or it is painful, talk to your doctor about it. Don't be embarrassed. These concerns are not uncommon. Your doctor probably has helped many women like yourself. She or he can suggest treatments, counseling, or other resources to help you achieve a healthy, satisfying sex life. For instance, your doctor might prescribe a different medicine with few or no sexual side effects or suggest physical therapy to treat pelvic pain. Some women want to know about a female counterpart to Viagra. Viagra-like drugs treat erection problems so that men can have sex. They do not boost a low sex drive, which is the main complaint of many women (or perhaps their partners). A combination of factors affects a woman's interest in sex, which is why drug treatment has been so hard to find. Keep in mind that age-related declines in desire for sex are not medical problems that need fixing. But if you are distressed by a low interest in sex, make sure to talk to your doctor.

Sometimes, the sexual problems might not be yours, but your partner's. Male sexual problems do not just affect men. They also affect their female partners. Male sexual problems include:

  • Not being in the mood for sex
  • Impotence (being unable to get or keep an erection)
  • Premature ejaculation (reaching orgasm too fast)
  • Delayed or inhibited orgasm

As men get older, impotence becomes more common. By age 65, almost one in four men has this problem at least one out of every four times he has sex. Common causes include health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes. Some medications also can cause impotence.

If impotence is a problem, there are medicines men can take. These drugs increase blood flow to the penis and help make an erection possible. Encourage your partner to talk to his doctor about treatment.

Although your sex life might change as you age, this does not mean that you cannot enjoy closeness and sexual intimacy with your partner.

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Content last updated August 12, 2010.

Resources last updated August 12, 2010.

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