Asthma Linked to Sexual Problems

From the WebMD Archives

May 8, 2000 -- It's not something that's talked about much, but many people with asthma find that the illness interferes with their sex lives, either because the symptoms get in the way of their sexual appetites or because the exertions of making love make them start wheezing.

In one recent study, more than half of the people surveyed said that having asthma detracted from their ability to enjoy making love. The researchers who conducted the study presented their findings in Toronto at a meeting of the American Thoracic Society, an organization of doctors who treat diseases of the chest.

The researchers looked at more than 350 adults who had been treated for asthma in the emergency department of Harlem Hospital in New York and who responded to a questionnaire designed to determine asthma's impact on their daily activities. The questionnaire was part of a comprehensive interview about the patients' asthma and was completed three weeks after their emergency room treatment.

The questionnaire included several questions about the more mundane aspects of daily life, such as climbing stairs and dusting furniture, which commonly appear in quality-of-life questionnaires about asthma. But the investigators also added a question that asked how much the respondents' ability to have sex had been limited by their asthma in the previous two weeks.

Of the 353 patients who were given the questionnaire, 19% reported that they did not have sexual relations at all. Among the 258 who were sexually active, 58% reported at least some limitation in their sexual functioning that they felt was related to their asthma. "Only 34% reported no limitations at all in their sexual activity," the authors write.

Rather than solving any mysteries about sex and asthma, the participants' responses invite further questions, researcher Ilan Meyer, PhD, tells WebMD. If someone is having asthma symptoms, does difficulty breathing make sexual desire a luxury? Or do the respondents' answers mean that they have asthma induced by the exertions of sex? Would a change in sexual position make physical intimacy easier for people with asthma? These are examples of questions that may be addressed in further studies, he says. Meyer is an assistant professor social and medical science at Columbia University, with which Harlem Hospital is affiliated.

Until further research is done, people with asthma should know that there may be a link between their sex lives and the state of their illness.

"The participants in the study were quite ill, since they had recently been treated in the emergency department. The findings may not pertain to patients whose asthma is well controlled. However, the findings may indicate that people with asthma should [make note of] any decline in sexual function and report it to their physician, because it may be an indication of poor health," researcher Jean Ford, MD, tells WebMD. Ford notes that people with other chronic illness also often have sexual problems.

He encourages patients to take the initiative in bringing up the topic, because physicians may be as reluctant to start a conversation about sex as patients are.

The survey responses confirmed what Ford suspected in his practice, he says. "When I see a new patient, I ask, 'What would you like to do that you can't do now because of your asthma?'" says Ford, who is director of the Harlem Lung Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University. "Often the answer would be, 'I would like to have sex without having asthma problems.'"

Vital Information:

  • Results of a new survey show that people with asthma may have problems enjoying sex.
  • Researchers do not yet know whether asthma decreases sexual desire or whether sexual activity induces asthma.
  • One expert advises asthma patients to consult with their doctors if they are having problems with sex, because it may be an indication of poor health.
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