Intimacy and sexual activity

Many people who have chronic lung conditions, and their partners have concerns about the effect of sexual activity on their lungs. Sexual activity is not harmful to your lungs, and resuming intimacy and closeness with your partner can help to decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Your lung disease does not directly affect your sexual ability. However, COPD can have an impact on your physical health, such as becoming more short of breath, and perhaps your emotional health, such as feeling anxious, depressed, or lonely. Physical and emotional factors can affect your sexual ability. The fear of becoming short of breath may lead to avoidance of sexual activity or an inability to maintain sexual arousal.  

Medicines, such as bronchodilators and steroids that you take for your lung conditions, have not been documented to cause difficulties with sexual functions.  Medicines for blood pressure, diuretics, and anti-depressants may affect sexual drive and function. If you experience difficulties that interfere with intimacy, talk with your GP or nurse about medicine effects or the need for increased oxygen during sexual activity.

It is possible to maintain and improve intimate relationships by reducing breathlessness, fatigue, fear and anxiety. Simple considerations include:

  • Plan sexual activity when you feel at your best in the day.
  • Cough and clear sputum prior to sexual activity.
  • Use your reliever puffer before or during sexual activity.
  • If you use home oxygen for activities, plan to use the same amount of oxygen during sexual activity.
  • Incorporate controlled breathing techniques and energy conservation strategies
  • Be aware of your symptoms: breathlessness is normal during any demanding activity. If anxiety and fatigue develops, stop and rest briefly.
  • Take your time, be relaxed and ensure adequate rests before and during sexual relations.
  • Avoid factors that will increase your fatigue, such as heavy meals, alcohol consumption, uncomfortable room temperature and emotional stress.
  • Talk to your partner about positions that are more comfortable for you to avoid pressure on the chest and stomach, causing breathlessness.
  • Use support from pillows and other furniture.
  • Change positions if you become uncomfortable.
  • Avoid perfumes, powders and hair sprays that may impact on breathlessness.
  • Equally important and less fatiguing forms of intimacy include touch, affection, and physical closeness.

Communication is a very important part of creating and maintaining emotional intimacy and satisfying sexual relationships with partners. Avoiding talking about problems may lead to misunderstanding and increase strain in your relationship. It can help to:

  • Put your fears on the table. Partners may be less concerned about things that worry us (such as appearance, shortness of breath or technique) than you think.
  • Ask about and take time to listen to your partner’s thoughts and feelings. It’s possible they feel more fear or guilt than you do.
  • Use “I” statements when discussing intimacy issues to reduce resistance and create more open communication.
  • Be patient and kind with yourself and your partner as you communicate more and explore alternatives.

All intimacy should be for your enjoyment and fun. Laugh and talk about any difficulties either person is experiencing. Be prepared to try different ways to express affection. Tell each other what feels nice. Exploring sensuality and intimacy can open communication and strengthen your relationship.

Pulmonary rehabilitation programs usually provide opportunities to discuss issues related to sexual function, or you can individually discuss your concerns with your health care professional.