How Smoking Can Affect Your Sex Life

photographed by Nicolas Bloise.

If you needed one more reason why smoking cigarettes is bad for you, consider your vagina. In addition to harming pretty much every organ in your body and causing several diseases, smoking cigarettes can actually negatively impact your vaginal health — and, in turn, your sex life.

Research has shown that when people smoke tobacco, nicotine compounds can later be found inside their cervical mucous, says Caroline Mitchell, MD, director of the vulvovaginal disorders program at Mass General Hospital. "So, [tobacco byproducts] are absolutely there," she says. As you can imagine, having even minuscule amounts of nicotine inside your vagina is not great.

Vaginas are delicate ecosystems, and smoke compounds can "change the immune profile of the cervix and vagina," Dr. Mitchell says. In other words, your immune system may be less effective at fighting certain infections, including human papillomavirus (HPV), she says. On top of that, studies suggest that smoking can damage the DNA of cervical cells, so women who smoke are twice as likely as non-smokers to get cervical cancer.

Besides cancer and HPV, people who smoke have a much higher prevalence of bacterial vaginosis (BV), Dr. Mitchell says. It's hard to draw any surefire conclusions about exactly why this is, but she says it's "totally plausible" that smoking could change the bacteria inside your vagina. BV typically comes with a range of uncomfortable symptoms, like itching and vaginal discharge with an odor, so it can be pretty annoying to deal with. And when you have BV, you're usually advised to hold off having sex until the infection passes. If you're a smoker who happens to get BV a lot, then stopping may keep infections at bay, Dr. Mitchell says. "We have so few tools [for curing BV] that quitting smoking is an excellent intervention to decrease risk for recurrent BV," she says.

When it comes to sexual function, the effects of smoking are a little hazier. Studies suggest that people with penises who have erectile dysfunction may benefit from quitting smoking. See, smoking cigarettes causes your blood vessels to constrict, which could also make it harder for blood to flow to a person's penis and cause an erection. This phenomenon hasn't been examined on people with vaginas, although it makes sense that decreased blood flow could change vaginal lubrication or make sex less comfortable, Dr. Mitchell says.

You may have heard (or discovered on your own) that smoking marijuana has an aphrodisiac effect and can actually increase your sex drive. So, does smoking weed have the same effect on your vagina as tobacco? Unfortunately, this hasn't been studied yet, so it's unclear whether the same is true for non-tobacco products. "Medical marijuana is sometimes used for vaginal pain, so I sure hope not," Dr. Mitchell says.

Ultimately, there are tons of very solid health concerns that give you reason to kick your nicotine habit. But if you are currently trying to quit, keep in mind that a healthier vagina — and possibly better sex — is one more thing waiting for you on the other side of the horizon.

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