Health issues for lesbians: Prevention first

Understand important health issues for lesbians — from sexually transmitted infections to depression — and get tips for taking charge of your health. By Mayo Clinic Staff

All women have certain health risks. Women who have sex with women face an increased risk of specific health concerns, however. Although your individual risks are shaped by many factors beyond your sexual orientation and practices — including family history and age — it's important to understand common health issues for lesbians and steps you can take to stay healthy.

Protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections

Certain sexually transmitted infections — such as human papillomavirus (HPV), bacterial vaginosis and trichomonas — can spread between women. Oral sex and sexual behavior involving digital-vaginal or digital-anal contact, particularly with shared penetrative sex toys, can spread infections as well. Female sexual contact is also a possible means of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

To protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections:

  • Get tested and have your partner tested. Don't have unprotected sex unless you're certain you and your partner aren't infected with HIV or other sexually transmitted infections — whether you have sex with a man or a woman. Testing is important because many people don't know they're infected, and others might not be honest about their health.
  • Use a condom or other protection. During oral sex use a split-open condom, dental dam — a small piece of latex — or plastic wrap. Don't share sex toys, and keep them safe by protecting them with a condom and cleaning them before and after every use.
  • Be monogamous. Another reliable way to avoid sexually transmitted infections is to stay in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who isn't infected.
  • Consider the drug Truvada. In July 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of the drug Truvada to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted HIV infection in those who are at high risk. Truvada is also used as an HIV treatment along with other medications.

    When used to help prevent HIV infection, Truvada is only appropriate if your doctor is certain you don't already have an HIV or hepatitis B infection. The drug must also be taken daily, exactly as prescribed. And it should only be used along with other prevention strategies such as condom use every time you have sex.

    Truvada isn't for everyone. If you're interested in Truvada, talk with your doctor about the potential risks and benefits and whether it's right for you.

  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink and don't use drugs. If you're under the influence, you're more likely to take sexual risks. If you choose to use injectable drugs, don't share needles.
  • Get vaccinated. Vaccinations can protect you from HPV as well as hepatitis A and hepatitis B, serious liver infections that can spread through sexual contact.
  • Remain vigilant. There's no cure for HIV/AIDS and many sexually transmitted infections, such as HPV and genital herpes. The best way to stay healthy is to protect yourself.

Tackle depression

Lesbians and bisexual women might be at higher risk of depression and anxiety. In addition, youth who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender might have a higher risk of depression and attempted suicide. Contributing factors could include social alienation, discrimination, rejection by loved ones, abuse and violence. The problem might be more severe for lesbians who try to hide their sexual orientation and those who lack social support.

Left untreated, depression can lead to risky sexual behavior and a downward spiral of emotional, behavioral, health, and even legal and financial problems. If you think you might be depressed, talk to your doctor or seek help from a mental health provider. If you're reluctant to seek treatment, confide in a trusted friend or loved one. Sharing your feelings might be the first step toward getting treatment.

Jul. 24, 2012 See more In-depth