Health issues for lesbians and women who have sex with women

Know important health issues for lesbians and women who have sex with women — from sexually transmitted infections to depression — and get tips for taking charge of your health..

By Mayo Clinic Staff

All women face certain health risks. However, sexual minority women, such as those who identify as lesbian or bisexual as well as women who have sex with women, have some specific health concerns.

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 sexual minority women and steps you can take to stay healthy.

Safeguard your mental health

Sexual minority women are at higher risk of depression and anxiety. In addition, youth who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender have a higher risk of depression and attempted suicide.

Contributing factors include social alienation, discrimination, rejection by loved ones, abuse and violence. The problem might be more severe for sexual minority women who are not "out" to others 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.

Protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections

Certain sexually transmitted infections — such as human papillomavirus (HPV), bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis — 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. 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 practice safer sex.

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.

  • Practice safer sex. During oral sex, use a split-open condom, a small piece of latex (dental dam) 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. During digital vaginal or anal penetration, consider using a latex glove.

  • 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.
  • 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 hepatitis A and hepatitis B, serious liver infections that can spread through sexual contact. The HPV vaccine is available to women up to age 26.
Aug. 19, 2014 See more In-depth