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Living Now: Coping with changes in sexual health

Many people find that their sex life changes after transplant. And it may be hard for you and your partner to adjust. You’re not alone. And there is help available. Your sexual health is just as important as your blood and immune system recovery. Returning to sexual activity is an important part of life after transplant.

Help is available

Talk to your doctors about any sexual problems you’re having. This might feel embarrassing, but most doctors are used to talking about it. You may find it helpful to write down your questions before meeting with your doctor. “In my personal experience, doctors are comfortable talking about sex, but you may have to bring it up,” says Wendy, transplant recipient. If you feel uncomfortable talking about this with your doctor, talk with someone you are comfortable with, like a nurse or social worker. They can help you get the care and support you need.

Common sexual problems and possible solutions

Some sexual problems after transplant may be temporary side effects from treatment. Others may be long-lasting or signs of a more serious complication.

Tell your doctor or nurse about any new sexual problems you experience and how you are feeling. They can help make sure sexual problems aren’t early signs of complications, like chronic graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) or infection. They can also help suggest ways to ease symptoms.

Here are some common sexual problems after transplant:

Loss of interest in sexual activity

If you have lost interest in sexual activity, talk to your doctor or nurse. For some women, estrogen replacement may be an option. For some men, testosterone replacement or medicines for erectile problems may be an option. You might also find it helpful to see a professional sex therapist or counselor.

Vaginal changes

Many women have vaginal dryness, which can cause discomfort or pain during intercourse. Over-the-counter water-based lubricants or vaginal moisturizers can help reduce pain. Prescription medicines, like vaginal estrogen, may help some women. Ask your doctor or nurse what is best for you.

After transplant, some women may have vaginal infections. Symptoms include a creamy-white discharge, or itchiness that gets worse if you scratch. This may be treated with anti-infection medicines.

Erectile issues

Many men have difficulty having or keeping an erection during their recovery. Talk to your doctor about options for dealing with erectile dysfunction. You might also try other sexual activities for pleasure, including oral sex or masturbation.

Pain during sex

If sex is painful, tell your doctor or nurse. They can help find out what is causing the pain and recommend the best treatment.

But even with treatment, some people still have pain with sex. Talk to your partner about what hurts. Explore other positions or ways of sharing intimacy. You might experiment with less strenuous activities, such as mutual masturbation, side-by-side positions or quicker rather than longer sexual encounters.

Plan times for intimacy after you have taken pain medicines. Use pillows and cushions to get more comfortable. Allow the person who has the pain to control the depth, speed and duration of penetration.

Practice safe sex

Remember to practice safe sex even if you have been in a long-term, committed relationship. Your immune system is weaker than normal right now, so your risk for infection is higher. Ask your doctor if there are any sexual practices that you should avoid.

You should always use a condom during sex. Condoms help lower your risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

Be sure to use condoms or other forms of birth control to prevent pregnancy. It may still be possible for you or your partner to become pregnant without birth control. Preventing a pregnancy is important because the medicines you are taking might hurt an unborn baby.

Connect with your partner

It may not be easy, but it’s important to talk with your partner about any sexual problems you may be experiencing. Talk openly and encourage your partner to do the same. If you understand each other’s feelings and experiences, you can help each other cope with any changes.

Take time to be intimate, even as you work through any problems. Remember, intimacy doesn’t just mean having sex. Explore other ways to be intimate, such as cuddling, giving each other a massage or having a romantic dinner.