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What to Do When Sex Hurts (and Not in the Good Way)

by 
author image August McLaughlin
August McLaughlin is a health and sexuality writer, media personality and author of "Girl Boner: The Good Girl's Guide to Sexual Empowerment." Her work appears in Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, DAME Magazine and more. augustmclaughlin.com
What to Do When Sex Hurts (and Not in the Good Way)
Sex hurts for many people, but it shouldn’t have to. Photo Credit: nd3000/iStock/GettyImages

If your latest romps between the sheets were more painful than pleasurable, you’re not alone. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine reported that 35 percent of the more than 1,700 participants experienced pain during their most recent sexual activity. And while pain during vaginal and anal sex is common, it’s seldom discussed, meaning it’s likely to continue.

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The good news is that most causes of sexual pain are manageable. So when sex hurts, hit the pause button and consider the following remedies. And if your symptoms are severe or long-lasting, be sure to see your doctor, as even more serious causes of painful sex are usually very treatable.

1. Don’t Go Straight to Penetration

Skipping foreplay can easily lead to painful sex because your body doesn’t have time to warm up.
Skipping foreplay can easily lead to painful sex because your body doesn’t have time to warm up. Photo Credit: GeorgeRudy/iStock/GettyImages

Whether you consider kissing and rolling around naked foreplay or part of sex, savoring it for more than a minute or two is important for multiple reasons, including staving off pain. “More foreplay increases not only the connection and desire, but also increases natural lubrication,” says Davia Frost, a certified sex and intimacy coach and owner of Frosted Pleasure.

All of this can make sex more fun, pleasurable and painless. Frost suggests taking your time with passionate kissing, soft-but-daring caresses and setting the mood in whatever ways you and your partner see fit. Examples include eating particular foods, using toys and playing music that gets you both in the mood.

2. Use More Lube

Even with plentiful play before penetration, a little more lube can go a long way. Commercial varieties can enhance comfort and pleasure, especially if you’re prone to vaginal dryness from menopause or medications. When selecting a good lube, consider your habits and needs, says Megan Fleming, Ph.D., a New York City sex and relationship therapist and author of “Invisible Divorce.”

If you use condoms, choose a water- or silicone-based lubricant, because oil isn’t latex-friendly. Or if you’re prone to yeast infections, consider a water-based, glycerine-free product. For sensitive skin, a silicone-based lubricant may be ideal. “My strongest recommendation is to try several different types of lubes to know which one is best for you and your partner,” Fleming says.

Read more: 10 Ways to Have a Greener Sex Life

3. Prevent or Treat Yeast Infections

Pain during sex is one of the most common symptoms of yeast infections, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. They occur when the yeast-like bacteria candida grows excessively, creating an imbalance that fuels inflammation. When you have one, you might also notice genital itching and redness and thick, white, bumpy discharge. And while candida infections most often affect the vulva and vagina, they can develop on penises too.

To prevent painful sex from yeast infections, wash your genitals with warm water without any perfumed cleansers, manage your blood sugar if you have diabetes and talk to your doctor early if you notice symptoms. Treatments like anti-fungal creams and oral medications can have you feeling more “ahh” than “ouch” pretty quickly.

4. Relax Before Anal Sex

Tensing up can make anal sex more painful.
Tensing up can make anal sex more painful. Photo Credit: YakobchukOlena/iStock/GettyImages

Relaxation makes way for arousal, and it’s especially important before anal sex. Even if you’re being generous with the lube (a must!), the act can invite irritation if you’re feeling tense. “Relaxing the anus can take time and practice, and it’s important to get the angles right,” says New York City sex therapist Stephen Snyder, M.D., author of “Love Worth Making.”

For the ins and outs of anal play (both literally and figuratively), he often recommends Jack Morin’s book, “Anal Pleasure and Health.” The turning point, writes Morin, often happens when the receiver allows massage to the anus knowing that penetration won’t happen. So focus on respect and pleasure, going deeper only if or when the receiver requests it.

5. Trim Your Nails

If you experience irritation or a bit of bleeding after sex that involved finger penetration, your partner’s nails could be the reason. Untrimmed nails or nails with rough or sharp edges can easily cause irritation and micro-tears in your vaginal or anal tissue during finger play.

Avoiding these tears is important for your comfort in the moment as well as preventing additional pain related to sexually transmitted infections. This is because STIs and the HIV virus can enter through the tiny tears. Lube can help lower your risk of micro-tears, but, ideally, you and your partner will practice good nail hygiene too. So go ahead and treat yourself to that mani-pedi.

Read more: 9 Things You Should’ve Learned in Sex Ed

6. Switch Positions

Sometimes simply switching positions can turn painful sex into pure pleasure. Soreness in your uterus during or after sex can result from positions that invite ample deepness, says sex and intimacy coach Davia Frost, pointing out that “not everyone can handle deep penetration, and sometimes the poking of the cervix can be painful.”

While some people enjoy cervical stimulation during sex, potentially finding it orgasmic, it’s important to shift gears if the sensation feels uncomfortable. Allow the person experiencing pain from deep penetration to be on top, for example, so they have more control over movements. Or switch to 69 for some mutual oral pleasure.

7. Masturbate More Often

Masturbating can increase arousal and desire while minimizing vaginal dryness.
Masturbating can increase arousal and desire while minimizing vaginal dryness. Photo Credit: lolostock/iStock/GettyImages

Vaginal dryness can derive from a range of factors, from giving birth or taking certain medications to going through menopause. Regardless of the cause, it’s likely to make penetrative sex painful. One way to manage it happens to be one of the most fun too: play with yourself.

Masturbation boosts blood flow to your genital region, stimulates arousal and increases natural lubrication production. Working masturbation into your lifestyle, using your hands or a toy, can make sex with a partner a lot more comfortable and pleasurable for you both. For a spicy alternative to intercourse, consider masturbating side by side. And when it comes to penetration, use lube.

Read more: 5 Ways to Enjoy the Benefits of Sex When You’re Not Getting Any

8. Skip the Douche

In the U.S., nearly one in five women age 15 to 44 years old douche to clean their vaginas, according to the Office on Women’s Health. Most doctors don’t recommend douching, however, because it can offset the balance of good versus bad bacteria in the vagina, making way for infections, inflammation and irritation. So if you currently douche regularly and experience pain during sex, switch to healthier hygiene habits. The vagina is self-cleaning, so all you really need to do is wash the outside with warm water when you bathe or shower. And avoid scented feminine products like tampons and sprays.

Read more: 9 After-Sex Hygiene Habits You Should Never Skip

9. Eat More Healthy Fats

Healthy fat sources can boost your overall health and make sex more pleasurable at the same time.
Healthy fat sources can boost your overall health and make sex more pleasurable at the same time. Photo Credit: a_namenko/iStock/GettyImages

A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition linked eating more healthy, polyunsaturated fats with higher levels of testosterone in cisgender women. And these good fats positively affect estrogen metabolism too. This sex hormones plays an important role in arousal, so upping your intake may lead to more gratifying sex while staving off vaginal dryness.

Aim to eat a bit of fat with every meal for improved sex hormone production. Flaxseed oil and soy make especially good choices for some people prone to vaginal dryness, given the foods’ natural estrogen-like qualities. Other healthy fat sources include nuts, avocados, olive oil and fatty fish like salmon.

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