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Sex and Covid: three stories of how Covid-19 can affect your sex life, for better or worse

Sex and Covid: three stories of how Covid-19 can affect your sex life, for better or worse

We know Covid-19 has impacted sex and relationships over the last year. Some couples have struggled to cope with all the extra time in each other’s company. Others have enjoyed more time at home with no distractions. People have found new ways to date or share intimacy online. Many people found a new relationship with their own body.

But what about people who’ve had Covid, or are experiencing long Covid? I spoke to three young people who told me about their very different journeys through the pandemic, the lows and some surprising highs of illness, recovery and reflection.

“I was too scared to masturbate in case I had a heart attack”: Kirsty’s story

Kirsty,* in her early 30s, was enjoying her work in the creative industries when the pandemic hit. She was living with her fiancée at the time. When her whole industry was forced to shut down, she kept busy with her own projects and online volunteering.

Around mid-April 2020, Kirsty started to feel tired and feverish, but put it down to the record temperatures that baked the country during the first lockdown. After a few weeks of feeling steadily worse, she knew she had to get help. “My partner had to help me to the toilet. I’d lost a stone and felt like I couldn’t work my body properly.” Alongside debilitating fatigue, Kirsty experienced tremors in her hands and feet and constant migraines. Eventually, her doctor confirmed she’d had Covid-19. Her symptoms were likely to be a result of that infection - what is now known as ‘long Covid.’

A poll by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that over 1 million people in the UK reported symptoms of long Covid. The UK Government’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Recovery Action Plan states that ‘approximately 1 in 10 people who have had Covid-19 continue to experience symptoms and impaired quality of life beyond 12 weeks.’ Like Kirsty, many people experience a range of symptoms, including migraines, brain fog and heart palpitations.

“I had support from an NHS dietician to gain weight. But I also developed an issue with my heart.” Kirsty was diagnosed with postural orthostatic syndrome (POTs). POTs is an ‘abnormal increase in the heart rate that occurs after sitting up or standing.’ It can cause palpitations, dizziness and a feeling of weakness.

“I was terrified of exerting myself,” said Kirsty. “Even if I went for a walk, my heart would be pounding out of my chest.” I asked her about her sex life during this time. “I was too scared to even masturbate in case I had a heart attack. It was very frightening.”

Kirsty was on anti-depressants for a month or two. Her relationship with her partner broke down over the summer. “I think a lot of people experienced the same thing - having to spend that much time with someone - and then she wasn’t sure how to deal with my illness or help me. It was quite scary for her. Covid wasn’t the only reason but it gave the relationship a push.”

Finding a way back to sex

Kirsty knew she wanted to have the affection and connection that sex brings, but felt completley out of touch with her body. The few times she and her partner had sex before splitting up, she was exhausted. “The whole thing was very short and emotional. I felt completely out of touch with my body.”

Kirsty was able to speak to a relative who is living with ME (a condition which can cause debilitating exhaustion and loss of physical and cognitive function). She asked about how to have a relationship with this chronic fatigue. Happily, after some ‘covid-safe casual dating’, Kirsty is now in a new relationship. “The first time I had sex with my current partner I was crying afterwards. I was so overwhelmed that I was still physically able to do it. And she has been brilliant, she is very understanding and gets not to push too much.”

But sex does take a bit of planning. “Whenever we’ve been intimate, I still need to lie down afterward and put my legs up the wall. I might have a nap afterwards and not do anything for the rest of the day.” Her health is improving, but the physical effects are still there. She is feeling more positive about sex, though. “It’s nice to know that my body is able to get into a place of being able to do that.”

“Many people feel worried about sex when they’ve had heart problems,” said SH:24’s Clinical Director, Paula Baraitser. She showed me the British Heart Foundation guidance for people who’d like to get back to sex and intimacy. It offers some practical advice to reduce anxiety and help you feel comfortable about sex.

Alys is a 4th year student currently working on her dissertation. A musician and keen clubber, many of the things she loves have disappeared over the last year. “Everything is a bit scary at the moment. Going out is scary, leaving uni is scary, everyone saying ‘you won’t get a job’, …”

Alys had Covid symptoms during the first lockdown but didn’t get tested. “It wasn’t so easy to get tested then, it was all new.” The official advice was to stay at home unless your symptoms got worse. She recovered, but in the months after her illness, Alys started to feel unwell. “When I walked anywhere I got really flustered. I would be really hot and sweaty and get shortness of breath. I thought I was just really unfit.”

Alys started to feel embarrassed about sex. “I couldn’t go on top, couldn’t catch my breath. I just felt useless.”

Towards the end of summer, Alys was diagnosed with bronchitis. “The doctor pretty much agreed that it was long Covid, but no one really knew enough about it. I looked online but there was nothing about bronchitis and long Covid. I assumed my immune system was low after having Covid, so I didn’t realise how ill I was.” Alys was given an asthma pump to help “get a load of black stuff out of my lungs.”

A new relationship with herself (and her body hair)

With treatment, Alys got better. Post-recovery, she started to take advantage of lockdown to appreciate her body a bit more. “Before the pandemic, everything was so fast paced, then suddenly everything stopped. After I’d been ill, I started to think about myself. I had a moment of clarity…lockdown has driven everyone mad but it’s also pulled everything away.”

So Alys stopped shaving. “I’ve been shaving my legs and armpits since I was 14 and I realised - I don’t need to be like this. I don’t like how it looks, especially my legs. I look like a chicken! Now I feel more like myself. It’s made me accept my body more.”

Alys figured that lockdown was a good time to put down the razor. “I had tried before, but I found my armpit hair started smelling. But I wasn’t going out in lockdown, so it was a good time to try again. Once the hair grew back, I found that it regulates, and I love the smell. My partner loves it too. I think there are pheromones in the hair that are related to attraction. He likes to sniff my armpits!”

While there is conflicted evidence for armpit or pubic hair helping to spread pheromones to increase sexual arousal, there are sensory receptors in your hair follicles. Even a light touch will send a sensation to your brain. So more hair means more chance of stimulation.

Alys feels that her experience has brought her and her partner closer together. “We are very close. Past experiences have given me a weird relationship with sex and I’ve felt self-conscious. I’ve been told that [shaved skin] is attractive my whole life. Now I look at my hairy armpits or legs and feel proud of myself. I’ve worked on myself and feel like I’m back to nature. That has definitely brought us closer.”

“I wasn’t sure where to go for help”: Ana’s story

Ana* is in her early 20s, a student living through lockdown alone in her adopted city. “It’s not a great time to be a student,” she agreed. She was supposed to spend some time abroad as part of her course, but has spent most of the last year staring at a screen in her small apartment.

When she developed a cough and sore throat in the autumn of 2020, she went straight to a walk in centre and got tested. “I had mild symptoms,” she told me. “The fever went away in a few days. I was fatigued and lost my sense of smell. I was tired for a couple of weeks but then started to recover.”

But it wasn’t her Covid symptoms that worried her most. She had molluscum contagiosum earlier in the year. This is a viral infection that’s quite common in children, less so in adults. It can be passed on through skin to skin contact, and causes raised, blister-like spots on the skin. For most people, the spots are harmless and don’t need treatment. The body will eventually fight off the infection and the spots will disappear. However, the NHS does recommend treatment when the spots are affecting your quality of life, as they did for Ana.

Ana was in a ‘situationship’ when the pandemic hit the UK. “He was living abroad so we were keeping in touch by phone. Looking back, I realise I may have caught it from him, but I didn’t realise what it was.”

In the months before she tested positive for Covid-19, the spots had gone. As soon as had Covid, she had a break out of spots around her bum. By then, she was in a new relationship and able to see her partner under the restrictions at the time.

For Ana, the spots were extremely distressing.“It really affected me. I didn’t have a positive attitude towards [molluscum]. It was so embarrassing. I was disgusted by the idea of touching myself. I was worried that I would transmit it to my partner.”

Molluscum contagiosum is not usually referred to as a sexually transmitted infection (STI). However, it could be passed on through sex or intimacy as the blisters come into contact with your partner’s skin. It can ‘flare up’ at different times while the infection is still present, but should eventually clear up completely.

As a newcomer to the UK, she wasn’t sure how to get treatment. “I was very anxious. I didn’t know how I would reconnect with my sexual self, both in terms of masturbation and having sex with other people.” Ana went to her GP and was told she couldn’t get treatment on the NHS. “I was hesitant to go private because of the cost (around £200). I felt so lost.”

Before she got Covid, Ana had been dealing with the effects of long term stress. “I had started seeing a psychologist for other reasons,” she told me. “Now I was dealing with Covid and anxiety about [the breakout].” Her psychologist explained that sustained stress may have impacted her immune system.

I asked a GP about this. She told me that it’s broadly accepted that long term stress and tension can impact physical and mental wellbeing, though it can be hard to find evidence as stress is so hard to measure. The NHS ‘Stress Less’ guidance recognises that stress can ‘can affect how you feel, think, behave and how your body works – from how well you sleep to your immune system’. Ana’s psychologist thought it possible that her mental state had made it harder for her body to fight off Covid and molluscum contagiosum at the same time.

Ana eventually had her molluscum spots removed at a private clinic. “It was the best decision I ever made,” Ana said. “[Treatment] allowed me to slowly reconnect with my sexual self. It was good for my relationship too as my partner knew I was thinking about his health too.”

Ana’s story is an example of the anxiety and uncertainty that many of us have experienced over the last year. As Covid-19 dominated all conversations about health, the internet was full of stories and theories about how it affected us and how it could be linked to other conditions. The research was still catching up with the pace of the pandemic, leaving many of us feeling lost and desperate for answers.

Getting help to feel positive about sex

I asked Kirsty where she’d looked for help and support. In the early stages of the pandemic, no one really understood long Covid, and there was no network of support, formal or informal for people experiencing these frightening symptoms. “I’ve followed influencers who have underlying health conditions - people like Hannah Witton and Jessica out of the Closet - they’ve helped me understand what it means to not be able bodied and have sex and intimate relationships.”

Kirsty also found Facebook groups helpful when her relationship broke down. “Online groups have been a godsend,” said Kirsty. “As a queer woman, it can feel different when you break up with someone, like you’re losing your female best friend as well as your partner. There are some incredible groups online that have helped me through this whole experience.”

I asked Alys how her mental health had been affected. She acknowledges that it’s hard to pinpoint as ‘the whole world has changed’, but is in a good place right now. “I was very ill, and I thought it was my fault for being unfit. Knowing that it was out of my control makes me feel a bit better. And I feel much more confident about my body.”

The road ahead

Kirsty feels good about the future. “I feel excited and nervous. Cases are coming down, and I’ve heard that people with long Covid have responded well to the vaccine.” She wants to move on with her career and enjoy lockdown as it is. “In a way, it’s been quite nice for those of us with long Covid. We don’t have that ‘missing out’ feeling and it’s ok to just stay at home and rest, but I’m excited that I’ll be able to experience things opening up again.”

Alys is also feeling positive though more cautious with her health. “I didn’t [see a doctor] for ages. I didn’t think it was a thing for people my age. If I do worry a bit that I’d get it again and wonder if my body won’t handle it. But I don’t like living in fear. People will be more wary but I loved going out so much and I wouldn’t let [Covid] stop me going into a club when they open up again.”

Ana told me she feels ‘safe’ in her new relationship. “I talked to him about it before we got together. He made me feel comfortable. He came to the clinic with me and was very supportive.”

If you’re experiencing symptoms of long Covid

Your Covid Recovery (NHS.UK) can help you understand what’s happening and find help for your body and mind.

NHS England has launched specialist assessment centres to help people with long Covid, including mental health support. Find your nearest centre here.

*names have been changed

Illustrations by Linnéa Haviland

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