Sexual Wellness Resource Center
For Adults over 50.

COPD and Sexuality

By Michael Bates, M.D.

About 25 million Americans suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). This is a group of chronic lung diseases that cause slow, progressive shortness of breath. The most common are emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

What are the causes and symptoms of COPD?

90% of those with COPD are smokers or former smokers. Among smokers, 20-30% develop COPD and the risk is even greater in those with asthma. Long-term exposure to secondhand smoke or industrial agents can also lead to COPD.

Early symptoms of COPD include:

  • occasional shortness of breath, especially after exercise
  • mild but recurrent cough
  • the need to clear your throat often, especially first thing in the morning

As the lungs become more damaged you may experience:

  • shortness of breath, even with mild exercise
  • wheezing or noisy breathing
  • chest tightness
  • chronic cough, with or without mucous
  • frequent colds
  • fatigue and lack of energy

How does COPD affect sexual function?

COPD can decrease libido, cause erectile dysfunction (ED), and diminish sexual activity. Remember, this is in addition to the usual sexual changes that accompany aging. A sexual quality of life study of COPD patients reported a significantly lower sexual quality of life when compared to an age and sex matched group without COPD.

An active sexual life is a very important quality of life issue for aging adults and does not have to be discarded because of COPD. Let’s discuss the sort of sexual issues COPD can cause and what to do about them.

Concerns about sex with COPD

Wheezing, shortness of breath and coughing almost certainly will change the way you and your partner interact sexually. You may fear having difficulty breathing while making love, or disappointing your partner by not being able to finish. You might feel you are just too tired to have sex. Partners of COPD patients may also fear that sexual activity might cause harm and result in worsening symptoms.

In either case, withdrawing from intimacy, emotionally disconnecting, or giving up on sexual activity isn’t the answer.

Strategies for maintaining (and improving!) your sex life with COPD

1. Communicate

To get things right, talk, talk, talk with your partner about sex.

One study of sexuality and COPD reported that sexual problems were not often discussed with partners. Incredibly, 78% of patients reported ‘sometimes’ or ‘never.’ Share your feelings and your fears.

2. Exercise

Fatigue can put a damper on sex. Ramping up your fitness might help. Talk to your doctor about initiating a walking program or other gentle to moderate exercise. Many hospitals have pulmonary rehabilitation programs, which not only provide direction but also a safe environment in which to exercise.

3. Conserve energy

If you can walk at a normal pace or climb two flights of stairs, you have the energy requirements to handle sex. Still, people with COPD sometimes become fatigued during sex.

Having sex at a time of day when energy is at a higher level can make a big difference, and take breaks if needed. Cuddling and touching is a great way to pause while you catch your breath. And don’t worry about a little shortness of breath. After all, good sex should leave us all a little breathless!

Choice of sexual positions can impact energy as well. Avoid chest pressure for the partner with COPD—it’s better for him or her not to be on the bottom. Try side-to-side positions (face-to-face and front-to-back) or seated positions, which use less energy. Also, experiment with pillows and cushions.

Sex toys help a lot with stimulation and moderate the need for tiring physical activity. Vibrators and penis stimulators are good products to achieve a more satisfying experience.

4. Use your medication

Sometimes people with COPD have coughing and shortness of breath during sex. To reduce this risk, use your bronchodilator 15 minutes before sex.

If you use oxygen while walking, you will probably want to use it for sex. You can ask the oxygen supply company for extended oxygen tubing to have more slack between you and the tank to reduce restricted movement.

COPD is not a contraindication to using oral or topical estrogen for vaginal dryness. Nor is it a contraindication to using Viagra-like medications. There have even been some reports of improved shortness of breath with the use of ED medication—a bonus! Talk to your doctor.

5. Enhance your intimacy and don’t be afraid to experiment

Use a fan for a cool breeze to decrease the stress of shortness of breath.

Try different sexual techniques. It can be beneficial to think of different ways of expressing sexuality. Good sex isn’t just about penetration or giving and receiving orgasms. It’s about intimacy. To have the most intimate experience manageable, please read our Beginner’s Guide to Outercourse.

Incorporate sex toys to achieve a more satisfying experience with little energy expenditure. You can visit our online store for safe sex aids and toys, free of pornography or graphic ads.

What is the take home message?

  • Expressions of love, affection, and sexuality are part of being human. These things don’t have to change with COPD.
  • With chronic disease, sexual activity may be the only way to feel “normal” again.
  • Communicate with your partner, listen to your body, and be open to new sexual experiences.

This article is part of our series on chronic illness and sexuality. We’d like to hear from you what topics you’d like us to cover. Let us know on our Ask the Experts page.

As per our Terms of Use, this article is for general educational and informational purposes only and is not meant to serve as a substitute for professional medical advice. Consult with your own physician or health care practitioner regarding the use of any information received here before using or relying on it. Your physician or health care practitioner should address any and all medical questions, concerns, and decisions regarding the possible treatment of any medical condition.

References

COPD and Sex, Kam, Katherine, www.webmd.com/lung/copd/features/copd-sex#1

Everything you need to know about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Pietrangelo, Ann, www.healthline.com/health/copd

How to maintain your sex life after a COPD diagnosis, Leader, Deborah, www.verywell.com/sex-copd-914978?print

Is COPD ruining your sex life?, McCoy, Krisha, www.everydayheath.com/copd/copd-and-your-sex-life.aspx

Sexuality and COPD, Connell, Kelly, www.healthline.com/health/cod/sex#3

Sexuality in patients with asthma and COPD, Kaptein, AD A., van Klink, Rik C.J., de Kok, Frederique, Scharloo, Margreet, Snoei, Lucia, Broadbent, Elizabeth, Bel, Elisabeth H.D., Rabe, Klaus F., www.sciencedirect.com/sscience/article/pii/S0954611107004003

About the Author

Michael Bates, M.D.

Dr Bates practiced obstetrics and gynecology for 34 years in Wichita, Kansas, until his retirement in 2011.

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