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When Sex Is a Problem

Men have Viagra. But what about women with low libido?

Finding Relief

First, Peggie tried what millions of other women going through menopause try. She went on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to relieve menopausal symptoms like hot flashes. But standard HRT (estrogen and progesterone) does not always solve sexual problems. And it didn't for Peggie.

So her doctor suggested another strategy: adding a little of the male hormone testosterone, taken in pill form. Based on studies, including one published in the October 1998 issue of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, doctors are finding it can improve sexual desire and satisfaction in women. Peggie, too, had good results with it.

Testosterone boosts a woman's sex drive, sexual appetite, sexual fantasies, and the intensity of her orgasms. Why does testosterone, often thought of as a guy-only hormone, work for women? Because the ovaries make not only estrogen and progesterone, both of which decline after menopause, but also small amounts of testosterone. And testosterone, too, declines after menopause.

Younger, premenopausal women can also experience low testosterone levels, says Gloria Bachmann, MD, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in New Brunswick. Levels can be measured with a blood test. Fears that testosterone will make women grow facial hair or develop deep voices are unwarranted, Bachmann says, because the dose is very small. But some experts caution that the long-term consequences of supplemental testosterone in women are unknown.

Underlying Problems

Women with sexual problems should also consider getting a comprehensive physical, to determine if poor health, urinary-tract problems, sexually transmitted diseases, or stress might be contributing to their difficulties.

If emotional problems are at the root of the sexual distress, counseling with a competent therapist might help.

Another Option

In June, another possible solution is due on the market: a genital suction device (called the EROS-CTD), recently approved by the FDA. It's used before intercourse to draw blood to the genitals and increase sensation.

In a test by the manufacturer, UroMetrics, 20 women used the device; sensation improved in 90%, lubrication in 80%, and an increase in orgasms was reported by 55%. The $359 device requires a prescription and is expected to be covered by some health plans.

In the Pipeline

Several drugs under development also may help women. The first is Uprima. Made by Pentech Pharmaceuticals, Inc., in Buffalo Grove, Ill., it is awaiting final approval from the FDA for use in men and is now being tested in women. Meant to be taken about half an hour before sex, it's held under the tongue for 10 minutes, it quickly enters the bloodstream, and it acts on the brain to stimulate arousal.

Another drug, Vasofem, is under study by Zonagen, Inc., in The Woodlands, Texas. It's also meant to be taken a few minutes before sex and acts on the brain to increase blood flow to the genitals and promote sexual arousal.

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