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Breathing Problems (COPD) and Sex: Take My Breath Away

by Dr. Barb DePree MD

When you exercise, you need more oxygen. Sex is like a light exercise—you need more oxygen then, too. For people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), such as asthma, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis, that breathing space may be hard to come by. Further complicating the physical condition is the emotional fear of not being able to breathe.

Taken together, these emotional and physical limitations present an obstacle to the carefree sex of former days. But just as you develop new ways to accomplish other daily activities, you can continue to enjoy a fulfilling sex life. You just have to make adjustments. Such as:

Stay in shape. Heard this before? To enjoy the highest quality of life possible, you need to be as healthy as possible. This means to continue to exercise and to maintain a healthy weight. Discuss ways to improve your health with your doctor. See if there’s a pulmonary rehab program in your area where you can learn safe ways to exercise. Your quality of life will be better, and so will the quality of your sex life.

Prepare the environment. For those with allergies or lung conditions, the bedroom is the most important area to keep clean and allergen-free. That means no fragrances, smoke, pet dander, or dust. Keep the mattress and pillows enclosed in allergenic covers. Use a HEPA filter on the vacuum and consider using one in the room itself.

Prepare yourself. In order to enjoy these intimate encounters, psychological preparation is as important as physical preparation. Think about what you need to feel secure during sex. How can you communicate with your partner if you begin to feel breathless? What can you do to approach intercourse as a pleasurable act without anxiety?

Some physical preparation can also help you feel safe and comfortable. Keep your inhalers at the bedside. Take a puff or two of your short-acting bronchodilator about 15 minutes before having sex. If you use oxygen, keep it bedside as well. Add tube extensions to the nasal canula so you have more wiggle room. Wait a couple hours after a meal to have sex.

Do it. Experiment with positions that take pressure off your chest—lying on your side or sitting on a chair, perhaps. Use pillows to help prop you up. Take it slow and easy—cuddling and touching are nice, too. Run a fan—cool air on your face can help ease breathing and diffuse any heat buildup in the area.

Use supplemental oxygen if you have to and stop if you get winded. Talk to your doctor about increasing the oxygen flow during sex.

Don’t overlook the many alternative ways to give and receive pleasure. You can use manual stimulation, for example, or use a vibrator on the clitoris and the underside of the penis.

When normal activities consume more energy, and fatigue is the shadow at your elbow, making love may seem like climbing Everest. But just as you find ways to accomplish those mundane tasks, it will be even more rewarding to find new ways to make love.


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