There are plenty of barriers to good sex: finding the right time and place, being in the right headspace, oh, and having someone to actually do it with. But for the 4.3 million UK adults living with asthma, there can be a bigger hurdle.
Sammi Standley, 25, says her asthma led to the break down of her previous relationship, after her ex said that it was “driving a wedge” between them. “After we broke up, I was scared to let someone in because I thought they would judge me for my asthma,” says the care worker from Southampton.
She’s not alone in her experience. A survey of more than 2,000 people with asthma found the condition got in the way of nearly half of their sex lives.
“There is no sex in our house,” one anonymous respondent said. “I’ve been intubated and ventilated 25 times and resuscitated twice. I get breathless taking my clothes off.” Another participant said they felt “too wheezy to be in the mood”, while someone else said that even breathing through their nose when kissing was a challenge.
When Standley met her current partner, she initially hid her symptoms from him, but soon realised it was almost impossible to cover them up. Since she has told him about her asthma, he’s been there for her, she says – even in the ambulance and resuscitation room.
“There are times when he feels more like my carer than my partner, and sometimes I’m too tired or poorly to be intimate with him. But when I feel well, we make up for it,” she says. “Asthma is a part of me and because he loves me, we have been able to keep the romance alive.”
Asthma UK’s survey found that 54% of participants have had to stop having sex because of their asthma, while one in 10 participants have had an actual asthma attack during sex. One in three people said asthma makes them less sexually confident, while a quarter have changed sex positions to ease their breathing.
What to do if you have an asthma attack during sex:
Sit up straight. Take one puff of your reliever inhaler every 30-60 seconds and if you don’t feel better after 10 puffs, call 999.
Dr Andy Whittamore, clinical lead at Asthma UK, said: “If you find your symptoms are dampening the mood during a date or spoiling your sex life, it could be a sign that your asthma is not well managed.”
So, how can you manage it?
Basic management of asthma should be something you think about daily, not just before having sex. A 2019 study exploring the impact of severe asthma on intimacy concluded that healthcare professionals should be addressing this sensitive topic with patients, helping them to adopt positive strategies. Dr Whittamore recommends the following:
:: Take your preventer medicine every day as prescribed, even if you feel well.
:: Go for regular asthma reviews.
:: Make sure you always take your reliever inhaler out with you in case you do have asthma symptoms.
:: Don’t feel embarrassed about going to your GP if your condition is impacting your sex life.
When it comes to sex, there are things you can be doing to make it easier and stress-free. Like exercise, sex can be a trigger for some people with asthma. Remember that sex doesn’t have to be vigorous – it can be slow and intimate.
Talk about your asthma before sleeping with someone. That could be as easy as saying: “I’m leaving my inhaler by the bed in case I need it.” Keep it nearby, just in case, and if you start to struggle during sex, be honest and say you need to stop for a moment. If you feel uncomfortable, try switching positions so your chest isn’t weighed down. Both of you could lie on your sides, either facing each other or with one partner behind.
Steer clear of additional triggers. Perfume or scented candles triggered asthma symptoms in more than half of people, while red roses can cause symptoms to flare up in almost a quarter)of people. Latex in condoms can also be a trigger.
Enjoy yourself. Stress can actually trigger asthma, so worrying about you symptoms during sex can, frustratingly, set them off. It’s a vicious cycle. So though easier said than done, try to relax and enjoy the moment. And if you don’t feel well enough to have sex, don’t ever feel like you have to do it.