The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has left an indelible mark on various aspects of daily life globally, with its ripple effects reaching far into areas of health and well-being. A recent study has illuminated a concerning consequence of the virus and its prolonged aftermath, known as long COVID, on the sexual health of women.
The researchers investigated the relationship between COVID-19, long COVID, and sexual dysfunction in women, offering new insight into the pandemic's far-reaching implications.
The research was led by Amelia M. Stanton, an assistant professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences at Boston University.
"If you're sick with COVID, you're probably less interested in sex and maybe your body is less prepared to have sex," said Professor Stanton. "But what might be surprising to some folks is that long COVID symptoms really may have a physiological and psychological impact on sexual well-being for women."
While previous research has examined the effect of the pandemic on peoples' sex lives, Professor Stanton said this is the first study to highlight the impact of long COVID on sexual health in women.
The researchers surveyed over 2,000 women while using the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) to measure sexual function across various dimensions, including desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction, and pain.
The FSFI, an established measure in the field of sexual health research, revealed stark differences in the sexual well-being of women based on their COVID-19 infection status. Specifically, those who had contracted COVID-19 reported lower levels of desire, arousal, lubrication, and satisfaction compared to their counterparts who had not been infected.
More alarmingly, women suffering from long COVID were found to experience significant impairments across multiple aspects of sexual function, with their average FSFI scores falling within the dysfunctional range. This is a clear indication of the profound impact of long COVID on sexual health.
Long COVID, characterized by a host of cognitive and physical symptoms persisting weeks or months after the initial viral infection, has been a focal point of concern for both patients and healthcare providers.
Professor Stanton's research sheds light on the physiological and psychological toll of long COVID on women's sexual well-being. Until now, this topic has been relatively underexplored.
The findings not only highlight the broad spectrum of long COVID's effects but also underscore the necessity of integrating sexual health into the broader conversation on post-COVID recovery and care.
"I hope it's validating. If women type in ‘sex long COVID,' something will come up now," said Professor Stanton, who is also a clinical health psychologist at The Fenway Institute. "Sex, sexuality, and sexual function are still relatively taboo subjects. But this offers something patients can bring to their providers and say, ‘This is going on for me,' and maybe create an open dialogue around sex."
The BU study also contributes to a growing body of literature examining the impact of COVID-19 on various aspects of human health and well-being.
Prior research from BU dispelled myths surrounding COVID-19 vaccination and fertility, finding no significant effect on fertility or the chances of pregnancy.
Looking ahead, Professor Stanton plans to expand the scope of her research to include a more diverse range of sexual and gender identities.
Through her work with BU's Sexual, Reproductive, and Mental Health Disparities Program, Professor Stanton aims to design interventions and improve communication strategies for discussing sexual health in clinical settings.
"I always encourage providers to initiate conversations about sex," said Stanton. "If they have someone who's coming in for long COVID, maybe ask, ‘How are you doing sexually?' Asking that one question could open the door for people to say, ‘You know, I've been ashamed to say that this is going on, and I really need help.'"
"Any way we can iterate to folks that there is hope and there are strategies - your symptoms are meaningful and relevant, and they're important to talk about."
The study is published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine.
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