Having high sugar levels for a long period of time can cause problems in how you have sex – called sexual dysfunction.
Sexual problems will happen to almost everyone at some point, whether you have diabetes or not. And if you have diabetes, it doesn’t mean you’ll definitely have a problem. But people with diabetes are more at risk of sexual dysfunction.
Having high sugar levels for a period of time can damage your blood vessels and nerves, including the ones that supply your sexual organs. This can restrict the amount of blood flowing to your sexual organs, so you can lose some sensation. This could mean you have difficulty getting aroused, both physically and in how you feel.
But sex can be an important part of our lives, and it’s something we still struggle to talk about. You should get the time and support to talk about sexual problems with a healthcare professional as one of your 15 essential healthcare checks. So make sure you get the care and support you need.
Here we’ll take you through the sexual problems that can affect women. This information can help you manage any problems you may have now, or reduce your risk of developing them in the future. And if you're looking for information about sexual problems in men, we've got that too.
When you have diabetes, vaginal dryness can happen a lot. High blood sugars can cause damage to your blood vessels in your vagina. This leads to a lack of lubrication. As a result, sex can be very painful. Similarly, restricted blood flow and nerve damage can mean you feel less stimulation.
Some medication can make this more likely, including anti-depressants and blood pressure tablets. There’s also a chance, as there is with everyone, that this could be down to how you’re feeling.
More than one in four women with Type 1 diabetes have sexual problems.
There are lots of different lubricants that can help with vaginal dryness, which you can buy from your local chemist. This might seem a bit embarrassing, but it’s important to remember that vaginal dryness is very common and lubricants should help make sex less painful.
Painful sex and dryness can affect how much you want to have sex too, or some people call it having a low libido. There's lots of support available if you need more advice or want to talk it through, you're not alone.
Thrush is a fungal infection and is most common in women.
It’s not a sexually transmitted infection (STI) but it can be passed on during sex. Anyone can get it, but if you have diabetes and your blood sugar is high, you’re more likely to. That’s because a lot of sugar in your urine is a perfect breeding ground for the bacteria that causes thrush to grow.
Here are some of the symptoms of thrush:
- itchiness and pain around the entrance of your vagina
- discharge that might be white and thick, or thin and watery
- pain during sex
- stinging when you pee.
You can avoid getting thrush by keeping your blood sugars as near to your target range as possible, keeping your vagina clean (but don’t use perfumed shower gels or wipes), and wearing loose underwear.
You’re no more likely to get an STI if you’ve got diabetes.
You might get an STI if you have sex with someone who’s got one, if you don’t use a condom. But rest assured, diabetes doesn’t have anything to do with it.
You might not know you’ve got an STI because some of them don’t give you many symptoms. So use protection and there’s much less chance you’ll get one. Talk to your healthcare team if you have any questions or need advice on what kind of protection you should choose.
Urinary tract infection (UTI)
This is when the tubes that run from your kidneys to your bladder (urinary tract) get infected. An infection in the lower part of your urinary tract is called cystitis – you’ve probably heard of it.
UTIs are more common in women, and if your sugars are running high you’re more likely to get one. That’s because a lot of sugar in your urine can help bacteria grow.
Cystitis can give you symptoms like:
- pain when you pee
- needing to pee really frequently
- pain low down in your tummy.
UTI’s aren’t sexually transmitted but having sex is one way that gut bacteria can get into your urinary tract. And having sex when you have cystitis can put pressure on your bladder, which can be very painful. Sex is also a common cause of bladder infections in women, so could make the problem worse.
If you do have cystitis, you can treat it by taking paracetamol or ibuprofen and by drinking plenty of water. It’s also best if you don’t have sex until you feel better. Get treatment early, because it can develop into something called vaginitis.
And you can avoid getting a UTI altogether by keeping your blood sugar as close to your target as you can. As well as that, drink plenty of fluids and don’t hold on to your pee if you need to go to the toilet.
Speak to your healthcare team for more information and advice about avoiding UTIs.
How you’re feeling can have a big impact on how you have sex too. If you’re feeling embarrassed or worried about a sexual problem, this can be really difficult and make you feel like you don’t want to or can’t have sex.
If you feel comfortable, talk to your healthcare team for more advice and support. Or if you'd rather talk over the phone, our helpline is managed by trained counsellors who are ready to answer your questions or just listen. Whatever you need, you're not alone.
We’ve also got more information about the kinds of things people with diabetes told us they think about when it comes to sex and diabetes. With tips on what can help and who you can talk to.