The Sexual Side Effects of Chemotherapy

How Treatment May Affect Your Sex Life...and What You Can Do About It

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When people hear of chemotherapy side effects, they automatically think of things like hair loss and nausea -- not sex. Unfortunately, chemotherapy can affect your sex life during treatment, both directly and indirectly.

You may think that sex will be the last thing on your mind while going through treatment, but it shouldn't be. Intimacy can often bring higher levels of self-esteem and make you feel closer to your partner during the rough times of treatment.

Treatment often brings feelings of being unattractive because of hair loss and changes in weight (either gain or loss). Many psychologists agree that maintaining a normal sex life has many advantages while going through cancer treatment.

Is Sex Allowed While Going Through Chemotherapy?

Discussing with your doctor whether sex is safe is essential before resuming or maintaining a sexual relationship with your partner. For most people undergoing chemotherapy treatment, sex is medically permissible, even encouraged by their doctors. However, in some cases, sex can do more harm than good.

People undergoing chemotherapy are at risk of developing neutropenia, a side effect of treatment that results in a low white blood cell count. These white blood cells are vital for fighting off infections in the body. When the count is low, your body has less resistance to infection, which can lead to prolonged illness and possible hospital stays.

Sex, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex, are all pathways for infection to enter the body.

Sexual Side Effects that Can Occur During Treatment

Loss of Libido

Not feeling "in the mood" can be expected from both men and women who are going through treatment. Chemotherapy often leaves you exhausted by its side effects, and with little time or desire for sex.

The related effects on self-esteem also play a role.

Erectile Dysfunction

Erectile dysfunction, or impotence, is a condition in which a man is unable to achieve or keep an erection. Some chemotherapy drugs may directly cause impotence in men, but it can also be a result of the emotional stress caused by treatment. The good news is that this is usually temporary and goes away after treatment.

Vaginal Dryness

For women, some types of chemotherapy can cause vaginal dryness, a condition where no vaginal lubrication is created (even when a woman is aroused). This can lead to painful, irritating sex. Using a water-based lubricant, such as K-Y jelly, can make sex more comfortable. Be sure to consult with your doctor before using any type of over-the-counter medications.

Vaginal Infections

Vaginal infections are common in women who are undergoing chemotherapy, especially if they are taking antibiotics or steroids. The infections affect the lining of the vagina, causing pain, burning and irritation during sex. Symptoms can include vaginal itchiness, burning, and a white vaginal discharge.

Genital Warts or Herpes Simplex Virus Outbreaks or Flare-ups
If you have suffered from genital warts or herpes flare-ups in the past, you may notice they are more frequent during chemotherapy. Chemotherapy compromises your immune system, making it more vulnerable to the effects of viral infections such as HPV and HSV. Some people who have never experienced an outbreak or symptoms may do so for the first time during chemotherapy because of this.

What You Can Do About Sexual Side Effects of Chemotherapy

The good news is that most sexual side effects of chemotherapy go way after treatment.

If you are experiencing sexual side effects, talk to your doctor. Trust me, you will not be the first or last to experience sexual problems during treatment. Staying intimate during treatment is important, and doctors realize this, so don't be shy about expressing your concerns.

Communication with your partner is essential. It may be difficult for some men to admit a side effect such as erectile dysfunction, but letting your partner know can only help the relationship.


Effects of Cancer Treatment on Male Sexuality. Treatment Topics and Resources. American Cancer Society. Accessed September 15, 2008.

Frequently Asked Questions. Treatment Topics and Resources. American Cancer Society. Accessed September 18, 2008.

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