When all you want to do is lie in post-coital bliss, the last thing you want is to feel a burning sensation in your vagina. Unfortunately, pain during and after sex is more common than it should be. The American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians say that three out of four women experience “pain during intercourse at some point in their lives.”
Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gynecologist in NYC and coauthor of The Complete A to Z for Your V, says that a burning sensation during or after sex is a common complaint that she sees in her patients.
Here, expert ob-gyn doctors explain some common reasons as to why your vagina might feel like it’s burning during or after sex.
Ob-gyn Felice Gersh, MD, founder/director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, in Irvine, California, and the author of PCOS SOS, explains that some of the ingredients in laundry detergents can also cause vaginal burning. The dyes, fragrances, preservatives, surfactants, enzymes, parabens, solvents, emulsifiers, and other chemicals can either directly irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction. Gersh also explains that the chemical scents in detergents are common causes of skin burning and rashes.
The best way to determine if your laundry detergent is behind your vaginal burning is to “eliminate its use immediately and place a soothing skin topical like aloe gel or shea butter on the vulvar skin and see if the irritation in the vagina dissipates,” says Dr. Gersh. You can also try another detergent with fewer dyes and fragrances as well. However, if the irritation doesn’t improve in three days, Gersh says it’s best to see a doctor.
Gersh also adds that thongs can irritate the opening of the vagina and lead to irritation and inflammation. Not only is that annoying and uncomfortable by itself, but chronic inflammation can also lead to an overgrowth of bacteria which could end up causing a vaginal or bladder infection. Also, sorry buuuuuuut: The area around the opening of your vagina is adjacent to your butthole and thus fecal bacteria can transfer from any movement of the thong from butt-to-vag increasing the likelihood of infection.
Says ob-gyn Lorene Garcia, MD, and editor of the women’s health blog Daily Vaginal Healthcare, “stress can affect your hormones as well as your natural vaginal lubrication.” Whether you’re nervous about the experience, dealing with other unrelated stressors in your life, this dryness can cause the skin on your vagina to burn and feel uncomfortable. Garcia recommends lubing up and adding more foreplay to the mix to ensure as pleasurable an experience as possible.
Janelle Luk, MD, medical director and cofounder of Generation Next Fertility, explains that yes, there are a variety of reasons why tampon use could cause vaginal pain or irritation. If you are not properly placing the tampon or inserting it deep enough, you could experience a burning sensation. If your vagina is also just baseline drier than average, it could also make tampon insertion extra irritating.
In The Vagina Bible, Jen Gunter, MD, explains that after vaginal delivery, a tear or episiotomy or other delivery-related issues can cause scarring between the vaginal opening, which causes pain and can sometimes need surgery to correct. This scar tissue is fragile, she explains, and sexual penetration can easily break down the fragile skin. This pain from the breaks in skin is often described as a burning sensation, she adds. Rest assured though, if you’ve never had surgery or given birth vaginally, this is unlikely to be the case.
6. It could be from products you’re using.
Dr. Dweck said products are the most common cause of vaginal burning during or after sex. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a million times: Do. Not. Put. Soap. In. Your. Vagina.
“The inside of the vagina has mechanisms to keep the pH in balance,” Dr. Dweck said. You can wash your vulva—the skin area around your vagina—with a gentle, mild soap (like a plain Dove bar soap, for example) but should avoid anything with dyes or fragrance involved. If you feel like you need to scrub the living daylights out of your vagina to mask a smell that’s abnormal to you, Dr. Dweck said you should see your doctor and find out what’s causing it instead of spraying the area with perfume.
It’s also important to note that some bodies are just more sensitive to certain products than other bodies. Dr. Dweck clarified that some people may find their vagina is completely unbothered by strongly scented soap (although I dare you to find someone who can use that minty Dr. Bronner’s soap without feeling like someone lit a match beneath their vagina), and other people can’t put anything but water near their vagina without getting irritated. It’s essentially a trial-by-error thing—if you find that one product is continuously making your vagina feel dry, irritated, or like it’s burning, try switching to a different one.
What you use to remove pubic hair, if that’s something you do, can cause irritation as well. Although you technically remove hair from your vulva, not your actual vagina, burning in the general area is extremely irritating, especially during sex. Skin irritation caused by razor burn can cause discomfort during the friction of sex. If this is something you struggle with, try shaving with the direction of the hair—not against it. You should also be sure to rinse your razor often, so it doesn’t get clogged with shaving cream and hair, causing the blades to get dull and work harder to remove hair. Post-shave, a moisturizer with petroleum as the main ingredient (like Vaseline) should keep razor bumps at bay.
Some people might also feel irritated, and therefore burn-y, as a result of certain condoms or lubricants. Any condom or lube that says it has a “fire and ice” effect is, understandably, going to burn. Ob-gyn Leah Millheiser, MD, also recommended steering clear of any lube that contains glycerin if you’re someone with sensitive skin or easily irritated by products. Lord knows there is no shortage of lube options in this world and your physician can help you pick one with a good reputation for not making people’s vaginas burn. Dr. Millheiser said if you and your partner have been tested and no longer use condoms, you can use olive oil, avocado oil, or coconut oil as a natural lubricant that shouldn’t cause irritation. But those oils will break down the materials in condoms and dental dams, so don’t combine the two.
There are also plenty of options available when it comes to condoms—latex, non-latex, sheepskin, etc. Even people without latex allergies can be sensitive to that material, Dr. Dweck said, so don’t be timid about trying other rubber options. Condoms that are scented, flavored, or contain spermicide are particularly known for causing tiny abrasions in the vagina that can result in a burning sensation. Don’t just stick to one brand, in other words. Try ’em all out!
And not that this is in a product that is something you can buy at the drugstore, but both Dr. Dweck and Dr. Millheiser mentioned it’s a rare but real thing for people to be allergic or sensitive to semen. “Some women can feel irritated from semen, even up to an irritation level of an allergic reaction,” Dr. Dweck said. “It could be a product their partner may be using but some women are truly allergic to their partner’s semen.”
Using a condom, in this case, should help. But you should also visit your doctor to rule out anything like bacterial vaginosis, or BV (which is more common among people who aren’t using condoms), a yeast infection, or an STI.
The most common “hormonal change” responsible for vaginal dryness is one anyone with female hormones eventually goes through—menopause. As you approach menopause, estrogen levels start to dip, and one of the side effects of that dip is vaginal dryness. But for younger folks, though, vaginal dryness can be caused by birth control pills.
Dr. Millheiser said the number one reason for burning during sex among the patients in her practice is a problem called provoked vestibulodynia, or PVD, that’s typically caused by low-dose hormonal birth control pills. PVD can cause someone’s vagina to develop a redness and makes sex painful. What’s essentially happening in your body is that it reacts to the low doses of hormones in your pill and then acts to suppress hormones within your body, as Dr. Millheiser explained.
“Your vagina is acting like a menopausal woman’s because you’re only getting a very low dose of a hormone,” Dr. Millheiser said. She added that it’s particularly common (about nine times more common, to be clear) among women who started taking low-dose birth control pills at age 16 or younger.
The good thing about PVD caused by birth control pills is that it’s totally fixable. Dr. Milheiser said she typically recommends patients switch to another birth control method, like an IUD or the Nexplanon implant. She said it isn’t common that just switching to a higher dose of the hormonal pill fixes the issue.
Dr. Dweck also said medications—particularly things like antihistamines you take during allergy season to dry up your snot—are known culprits for causing vaginal dryness. “Antihistamines dry up secretions in the nose but also in the vagina,” she said. You can talk to your doctor about potentially switching to a different medication if you’d like, but Dr. Dweck said lube should do the job just fine by clearing up vaginal dryness and eliminating the burning you may feel as a result.
Both yeast infections and BV can cause the lining of the vagina to become inflamed, which can result in a burning sensation when it’s penetrated by a finger, a penis, a toy—anything. Dr. Dweck said this isn’t a symptom everyone with BV necessarily experiences but it’s a possibility. Those infections also generally come with some sort of vaginal discharge, so if this is the culprit behind the burning you’re feeling, you’ll generally be able to tell based on other common symptoms of yeast infections and BV.
Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, don’t just make it feel like you’re peeing a stream of pure fire but they can also cause a burning sensation during sex. Those infections cause the urethra and bladder to become inflamed, so any pressure in that area can be pretty uncomfortable. Luckily they’re easily cured with antibiotics. Some general advice if you have a UTI is to wait until symptoms are gone for two weeks before having penetrative sex.
Dr. Dweck mentioned gonorrhea and chlamydia as two STIs that are most likely to bring symptoms that result in burning during or after sex. Both of these infections can cause inflammation of the vaginal tissue, which can cause burning during sex and when you pee. If you think you may have had sex with someone with gonorrhea or chlamydia or had unprotected sex recently, you should be tested to rule out an STI—both your vagina and your partners will thank you for it.
Herpes can also cause a burning or stinging feeling during sex, but Dr. Dweck said it’s primarily isolated to the lesions that accompany a herpes outbreak—they can be extremely painful. Because of the way herpes functions in the body, however, identifying lesions as the cause of burning during sex can be tricky. If you think you’ve been exposed to it, you should try to be tested when you feel like you’re experiencing symptoms (like lesions). In some cases, lesions can actually pop up on the lining of your vagina and feeling a strong, painful, burning sensation during sex may be the first tip that you’re having an outbreak.
Outside of the three main categories for burning sex (in the bad way) are vaginismus and burning caused by vigorous sex. “Sometimes the irritation is just because someone has had vigorous sex and that’s just a mechanical trauma,” Dr. Dweck said. Or if you’ve had a lot of sex recently, it’s not uncommon to get tiny little cuts in your vaginal wall or opening called fissures. They’re often so tiny, you can’t see them and don’t bleed but can cause a burning sensation during sex and when you pee. They tend to heal on their own but they need time to heal—read: You should avoid sex for a week or two while they heal. Dr. Millheiser also said soaking in a hot bath once a day can aid in the healing process, so do with that information what you will.
Vaginismus is a condition where a person’s pelvic floor muscles immediately and involuntarily tighten up upon the anticipation of penetration. This can be penetration of anything—a penis, a finger, a sex toy, a tampon, anything. Dr. Millheiser described this as a “fear-based reaction” that can be caused by a number of things, from a highly religious upbringing that discourages conversation around sex to a previous trauma or sexual assault. “Women will often experience this from the first time they try to have sex,” Dr. Millheiser said. The pelvic muscles are so strong, the tightening and pushing back someone with vaginismus experiences upon the anticipation of penetration can feel extremely painful and sometimes like a burning sensation. What’s good about vaginismus is that Dr. Millheiser said it’s highly treatable with a combination of things like using dilators in increasing size to retrain the pelvic muscles and therapy.
When You Should See a Doctor
The rule of thumb when it comes to burning during or after sex is to pay attention to how often it happens. Dr. Dweck said that if it’s only every once in a while, like once a year or so, it’s likely no big deal. But if you’re experiencing burning every single time or often enough that it’s making your sex life unenjoyable and painful, you should see a physician. Whether it’s just a matter of using more lube or treating an infection or condition like vaginismus, it never hurts to see your doctor. Especially when it comes to keeping sex enjoyable, fun, and completely pain-free.