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Wellness > Sex + Relationships

Ouch! Why Sex Can Be Painful & What You Can Do About It

First time with the hottie from your bio lab wasn’t all you thought it would be? Maybe you’ve been hooking up with the same guy for weeks, months, or even years, and suddenly, it just doesn’t feel right. Maybe you went at it a little too hard and you’re just a little sore, but there are a variety of infections and conditions that could be causing your pain—and you need to know how to safely handle ‘em. Whatever the issue, sex shouldn’t be a source of pain in your life. Her Campus has you covered to explain some of the basics behind something that should be a source of pleasure, not a problem!

Do I really need to be concerned?

According to Deborah Coady, doctor, author, and partial-owner of the women’s health care center SoHo OB/GYN, minor itching or irritation after sex that lasts less than one day probably isn’t a huge deal. Anything aside from that though should be cause for concern, she says.

“If pain occurs with each touch or penetration, continues as sex continues, occurs repeatedly after sex, this is not normal. And if pain with sex is burning, sharp, tearing, achey, radiating to the deeper pelvis, involves clitoral pain, bladder tenderness, or anal pain, has associated bleeding or burning secretions with it—none of this is ok, and should be checked by a medical professional,” she explains.

If it feels itchy…

An irritating itch that persists for several days after sex usually isn’t a good sign. Luckily for us collegiettes though, there are simple solutions for problems like vaginal infections, irritations, or dryness, all of which are complications that can arise after sex, and can be properly diagnosed and treated by your gyno. Typically, certain prescription medicines or creams will do the trick, while other times the solution is simply to avoid different scented products that may be aggravating the area. In addition to scented products, sometimes your allergy meds or other regular prescriptions can affect hormone levels in your body can cause this dryness or irritation. A gynecologist or other health care professional can help you pinpoint the culprit.

If visiting the ladies’ room hurts, or if trips are becoming more and more frequent…

Dr. Coady also explains that a condition known as painful bladder syndrome could cause sex to be painful. Find yourself running to the bathroom multiple times during a lecture or feeling pained when you need to pee, in addition to pain during sex? It could be PBS, especially if you’ve recently dealt with an infection in or around your vagina like a yeast infection. Having sex can often aggravate PBS, causing you even more pain. Different combinations of medicine, physical therapy, and changes in your day-to-day life (such as stress-reducing activities, choosing a workout routine that’s less intense, or dropping unhealthy habits like smoking or drinking) can all help treat, or at the very least lessen, the symptoms and side effects of PBS.

If it’s not PBS, a condition known as interstitial cystitis may be the cause of your pain. IC occurs when tissues of your bladder wall become inflamed and infected similar to how it feels when you get a urinary tract infection. Unfortunately, we ladies are 10 times more likely than men to experience IC according to the U.S. International Library of Medicine. As far as treatment options go, there are a variety of drugs or other medications that work for most people dealing with IC, as well as possible surgeries or therapies for more extreme or more painful cases. Certain foods or drinks such as citrus juices, alcohol, chocolate, onions, tofu, sour cream, and yogurt have been pinpointed as possible triggers of bladder infections and should be avoided as well if you suffer from IC.

Again, you need a gyno or doctor to properly diagnose and treat the above conditions, so if you are experiencing any of the related symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor.

If it feels like it’s burning or raw “down there”…

Another super common explanation for pain during sex is vestibulodynia (basically a fancy name for pain and discomfort around the opening and edges of your vagina). This is actually the leading cause of painful intercourse for women under 50, according to Dr. Coady. Vestibulodynia can be easily treated, but make sure to seek help ASAP to keep symptoms from getting too serious and making the problem even worse. Treatment options could entail making a few simple changes to your daily routine, which could be as easy as changing from pads to tampons, wearing looser clothing, or switching out meds like birth control that alter hormone levels in your body. Vestibulodynia is also sometimes treated with slightly more intense solutions like different creams or medications that can help relax your muscles before sex. Also, be careful of activities engaged in during foreplay or pre-sex activity. Pain from vestibulodynia usually results from the affected area being touched or aggravated too much, so extended foreplay, rough sex, or positions that maximize penetration (him on top, doggy style) could all amplify pain.

If you feel pain everywhere, but especially in your pelvis.

Dr. Coady describes the pelvic floor as “a very busy place.” Your pelvic floor is made up of different muscles and connective tissue structured out of tendons and ligaments that let organs from all other parts and systems of your body pass through.

Injuries to other parts of your body can serve as sources for pain during sex. As Dr. Coady describes, “The organs of the pelvis are intimately associated and so a problem in one easily influences it neighbors, often causing sexual pain.”

Because all other body systems and organs connect to your pelvic region, different injuries to parts like your hips, spine, or other key joints can often be felt in your pelvis if they go untreated or undiagnosed long enough. So it may feel like something down there is wrong or hurt, but it could be pain from an injury further up on your body.

Time for a quick lesson on your nervous system. Dr. Coady explains that a nerve known as the pudendal nerve serves as a main sensory nerve to your vulva (basically it’s the part of your body that helps register and deliver different sensations to the opening of your vagina). According to Dr. Coady, any pain you feel in the “nerve layer” “of your body is perceived or registered as coming from the sensory area that the pudendal nerve supplies.” Any painful sex that happens as a result of damage or injury to your pudendal nerve will usually be accompanied with burning, itching, or pain when you sit.

If there’s nothing physically wrong, but it still hurts…

Sometimes, sex just straight up hurts for no infection or condition-related reason. It’s totally normal to experience some pain or soreness during sex, particularly if it’s a long or rough session, if he’s especially well-endowed down there, or if you’re experiencing dryness just from being nervous or not in the mood. If pain during sex doesn’t last long enough or feel harsh enough to warrant a trip to the gyno, but it’s getting in the way of your sex life, don’t just power through the pain—try some of these easy fixes instead.

One easy fix is to try using lube, or use more lube than usual if sex is more “ouch” than “OMG.” Things like stress or meds like birth control pills can dry you out down there, making sex more painful than usual if you’ve got something like a big midterm coming up. Apply lube generously during foreplay and right before you do the deed to make things extra smooth. There are several varieties of lube, from water-based to oil or silicone-based ones, so experiment with different kinds until you find one that you like best. Learn more about the pros and cons of each type of lube here.

Taking things slow and making sure you’re relaxed and ready before things get, ahem, hot and heavy is another good way to lessen or ease any pain felt during sex, especially if your partner is a bit… bigger than you expected. There’s a reason so many magazines publish a gazillion articles on different ideas for foreplay! Keep things slow for the first few times rather than getting rough right away. Speak up if something’s hurting or doesn’t feel right too, and have your partner take it down a notch. If things still feel off, consider trying a different position. Most likely, getting on top will be your best bet—girl on top tends to be the position that causes the least amount of pain for girls because it allows us to control the level of penetration.


Obviously sex should be something you enjoy, not something that causes you pain. “The most important point is that these are treatable and deserve treatment,” says Dr. Coady. “Younger women may be more hesitant to seek care, and of course many if not most MDs are not skilled in recognizing and treating these problems.”

Make sure you visit a trusted, knowledgeable provider—try a gyno, your regular doctor, or your campus health center—if you experience regular discomfort or if something simply doesn’t feel right between you and your partner during sex. (Need help finding a gyno, or want to know what it’ll be like? Her Campus has you covered!

Pain should not be left untreated. Be smart, be safe, and when it doubt, get it checked out.

Sydney is a junior double majoring in Media and Cultural Studies and Political Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., a short trip away from Minneapolis, her hometown. When Sydney is not producing content for a variety of platforms, she enjoys hanging out with friends, watching movies, reading, and indulging in a smoothie or tea from Caribou Coffee, the MN-based version of Starbucks.