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Burning during sex: What causes the stinging sensation?

A burning feeling during sex can really take the pleasure out of it. Here, an OB-GYN explains what could be behind it.

Burning during sex

Written by Meg Walters

Sex is meant to feel good. In fact, that’s the reason most of us do it. But for some of us with vaginas, sex isn’t always the feel-good experience it’s meant to be. 

If you sometimes feel a burning sensation during sex, you’re certainly not alone. A 2017 survey of more than 8,000 women found that 7.5% — that’s roughly 1 in 13 — had experienced pain during sex.

If this is an experience you can relate to, chances are you want to find a resolution. Because who doesn’t want to get back to having sex for pleasure again, right? We quizzed the experts to find out why burning during sex might be happening — and how to stop it from disrupting your sex life.

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What causes burning during sex?

“There can be many causes of burning during sex,” explains OB-GYN Dr. Jenna Beckham. “Some of the potential causes could be an infection, vaginal dryness, irritation, or conditions called vaginismus and vestibulodynia.”

While you may be tempted to ignore an uncomfortable burning feeling during sex, getting to the bottom of the root cause is important. “Some people brush it off as a cut or injury during sex, but that’s not always the case,” says Dr. Charlsie Celestine, MD. “It could be an infection of some sort or a sexually transmitted infection [STI] as well, especially if it’s a recurring problem.”

Let’s take a look at some of the most common causes of that painful burning sensation during sex.

  • You have an infection.

There are a wide range of vaginal infections that can lead to a burning or stinging sensation during sex, “like a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, or STIs like gonorrhea or chlamydia,” Dr. Beckham says.

If you think you might have an infection, it’s important to seek help from a health care professional or sexual health clinic sooner rather than later.

Yeast infections, including thrush, are caused by a buildup of fungus in the vagina. Not the nicest sounding thing, but before you start feeling grossed out, they’re actually one of the most common causes of inflammation in the female genitals. Along with a stinging sensation during sex, yeast infections can also cause white discharge and vaginal itching. But, with a short course of antifungal medication, you should find things have cleared up in a week or two.

STIs are usually transmitted through unprotected sex. While different infections can cause different symptoms, some common ones include vaginal discharge, lumps on or around the genitals, an itchy sensation, warts or a rash around the genitals, and discomfort during sex. If you think you may have an STI, it’s important to seek medical help. “See a health care provider if you have abnormal discharge or concerns about exposure to an STI,” says Dr. Beckham.

  • You have vaginal dryness.

During sex, the vagina produces its own natural lubrication. In other words, you become “wet.” While the amount of wetness doesn’t always correlate with your level of arousal (it’s possible to be aroused and dry, or wet and not aroused, for example), this lubrication is important, as it reduces uncomfortable friction during penetration. Without it, sex can be pretty painful — it can even start to burn.

Vaginal dryness may occur, Dr. Beckham explains, “due to lack of arousal and foreplay.” Or, she adds, it could be “related to hormonal changes in your cycle [usually because of perimenopause] or medications.”  

If you’ve started taking a new medication like an antihistamine, beta blocker, or decongestant, check the package or ask your health care provider whether this might be causing the burning.

Even though vaginal dryness isn’t usually a sign of anything too serious, it’s still important to get it resolved. If it’s due to a lack of arousal, it may be time to have an honest conversation with your partner about what turns you on. Or, if it’s due to hormonal changes or medication, a quick visit to your health care provider will help you determine the exact cause.

If you think your burning during sex could be caused by temporary vaginal dryness, there’s an easy fix — using a store-bought lubrication can help in the meantime.

  • You’re experiencing irritation or an allergic reaction.

If your vagina or outer genitals have become irritated, the contact and friction during sex will likely only add to that irritation and — you guessed it — result in a noticeable burning sensation. 

Vaginal and vulvar irritation can be caused by all kinds of things. It could be “related to fabrics, soaps, lotions, or lubricants,” explains Dr. Beckham. The vagina is self-cleaning, so you don’t need to wash it out with products or lotions. Even those marketed specifically to clean the vagina can seriously mess up the balance of bacteria and pH levels, which can, in turn, lead to irritation. Washing the vulva (the external opening of the vagina) with gentle soap and water is typically OK, but if you’ve recently started using a new shower gel or body lotion, try going without it for a few days to see if that helps reduce the feeling of burning during sex.

  • You’re going through menopause.

Menopause is infamously tough on the body. During perimenopause (the transition period into menopause) and after menopause, your hormones are essentially sent into a frenzy as your body adjusts to no longer releasing an egg each month and a reduction in estrogen. You probably already know some of the classic menopause symptoms, like hot flashes, sleep disruption, and mood swings. But you may not have realized that vaginal dryness and pain during sex are also common in the late stages of perimenopause.

“There are treatments that can range from over-the-counter medications to prescriptions,” says Dr. Celestine. “Over the counter, there are vaginal moisturizers as well as lubrication that can be used during intercourse. There are also prescription moisturizers and vaginal estrogen that can be used to alleviate dryness symptoms.”

  • You have a condition such as vaginismus or vestibulodynia.

Chances are, if the burning you feel during sex isn’t new, you may have a medical condition that results in painful sex. 

Vaginismus is a condition that causes the muscles of the vagina to involuntarily squeeze and tense up during penetration. This can make sex incredibly painful and sometimes not possible. Vestibulodynia, on the other hand, is the medical term for chronic pain in the opening (or the “vestibule”) of the vagina. The exact causes of both vaginismus and vestibulodynia remain unknown.

If you have one of these conditions, dealing with burning during sex might be a little more complicated. But don’t lose hope because there are a range of ways to treat and manage these conditions.

Your doctor will talk you through some of the options, which include:

  • Sensate practice sex therapy (a series of exercises exploring sensual, nonsexual touch)
  • Physical therapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Topical creams
  • Prescription pain medication
Burning during sex

What should you do if you feel burning during or after sex?

Feeling pain or burning during sex isn’t much fun, and in some cases, it can be a little scary, especially if it’s a symptom you haven’t experienced before. But rest assured; in most cases, there’s a straightforward solution. “You should talk to your health care provider,” says OB-GYN Dr. Beckham. “In preparation, think about anything that may have changed or been different if this is a new symptom,” she says.

Before your appointment, you can even do some troubleshooting yourself, especially if the burning sensation has only started recently. “Try using some lubricant during sex — anything water based or even olive or coconut oil are great,” Dr. Beckham says. “And stop using any new soaps or lotions and avoid any new clothing or fabrics.” 

Burning during sex: The takeaway

If you feel your vagina burning during sex, try not to panic. With a little thought and action, and a chat with your health care professional, you should be back to enjoying yourself between the sheets in no time.

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