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Sexual problems in women with diabetes

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.

However, women who have high sugar levels for a long period of time are at risk of developing sexual problems. This is due to high blood sugar levels, and also high blood pressure and cholesterol.

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.

Sex can be an important part of our lives, and something we still struggle to talk about. Getting support and time to talk about sexual problems with a healthcare professional is one of your 15 essential healthcare checks.

You’re entitled to this care and support, so don’t be afraid to ask your healthcare team. They’re there to help you.

Diabetes can cause vaginal dryness 

High blood sugars can cause damage to the blood vessels in your vagina, which leads to a lack of lubrication which can make sex 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 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 reduce how much you want to have sex too.

There's lots of support available if you need more advice or want to talk it through with your healthcare team: you're not alone.

You may get thrush if your blood sugar levels run high

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. This is because a lot of sugar in your urine may lead to a yeast infection that causes thrush to multiply. 

Some medications called SGLT-2 inhibitors or gliflozins (Dapagliflozin, Empagliflozin or Canagliflozin) can occasionally increase your risk of developing thrush because they allow more sugar out of the body into your urine. Most people are fine and don’t experience this side effect.

Some of the symptoms of thrush include:

  • 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 pass urine

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)
  • wearing loose underwear

There's no link between diabetes and sexually transmitted infections (STI)

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 and 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 you’ve no symptoms, so using protection during sex will reduce your chances of getting 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) and diabetes

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 than men, 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.

Some medications called SGLT-2 inhibitors or gliflozins (Dapagliflozin, Empagliflozin or Canagliflozin) can sometimes increase your risk of developing urine infections by allowing more sugar out of the body into your urine. However, most people don’t develop this side effect.

Cystitis can give you symptoms like:

  • pain when you urinate
  • needing to urinate more 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.

How to avoid getting a UTI

You can avoid getting a UTI by keeping your blood sugar as close to your target as you can, drinking plenty of fluids and going to the toilet when you need to urinate.

Speak to your healthcare team for more information and advice about avoiding UTIs.

Sexual problems due to your emotional state

How you’re feeling can have a big impact on how you feel about sex. If you’re feeling embarrassed or worried about a sexual problem, this can make you feel like you don’t want to or can’t have sex. 

But you're not alone. You should talk to your healthcare team for more advice and support.

You can also contact the helpline run by charity Diabetes UK for support and advice from trained counsellors or go to its website for a range of resources. This includes information on what people told the charity about sex and diabetes, including tips on what can help and who to talk to.

Visit the Diabetes UK forum talk about sex and diabetes with others