Sex, drugs, and depression: What your doctor needs to know

young woman talking to her female doctor in a medical clinic setting, anatomy posters are visible on the wall behind her

For many of us, a trip to the doctor’s office produces anxiety: What do my blood results mean? Will my doctor think this bump is cancer? The physical exam can make us feel vulnerable and may involve mild discomfort, so we may shower, shave, and put on better-than-average clothes before heading out for our physical in an attempt to minimize this discomfort.

However, it’s the intimate discussions — whether a crushing depression, escalating alcohol use, or sexual problems — when our palms really start to sweat. These difficult discussions can be more comfortable and productive when we know what to expect.


Most people do not volunteer their sexual history, so be prepared for your doctor to ask you a few questions directly as part of your comprehensive exam. Doctors ask all patients about their sexual history, regardless of age, gender, and marital status. (This blog post has some tips for talking about sex with your doctor if you are in the LGBTQ+ community.)

As a psychiatrist, I routinely discuss sexual activity with my patients, as changes in mood, substances, and many medications can affect sexual functioning. For example, the most commonly prescribed class of antidepressants, the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), are more likely to lower libido than to treat depression. (They achieve remission in approximately 30% of patients — but they cause sexual dysfunction in 60% to 70%.)

What your doctor may ask: The five Ps: partners (number and gender), practices (what kind of sexual contact), protection (method of contraception), past history of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and pregnancy. Your doctor may also ask about medications or supplements that can affect libido.

What your doctor needs to know: Your doctor needs to understand your risk of getting an STI, including any risky behaviors or substance use. In addition, your doctor needs to hear about any changes in libido, problems achieving orgasm, difficulties maintaining an erection, or a delay in ejaculation. This information helps your doctor think through contributing causes, including your hormone levels, medical conditions, and medications.

Substance use

This is another tricky topic, as almost everyone minimizes their substance use. Most people understand that smoking or excessive alcohol is not good for them — it’s not a matter of education. In fact, patients may avoid revealing their use because they don’t want their doctors to “educate” them.

People using substances often experience shame, one of the strongest negative emotions we can feel, and something people go to great lengths to avoid. It’s helpful to remember the role of your doctor: it’s not to judge, and certainly not to reprimand. Assuming you trust your doctor, it can help to think of your doctor as an ally. Together you can brainstorm ways to decrease use (harm reduction) or to discontinue use altogether, when you are ready.

What your doctor may ask: It is standard practice to ask about tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drug use. If you drink alcohol, smoke, or use substances, be prepared for your doctor to ask detailed questions about the quantity, frequency, attempts to cut down, and cravings.

What your doctor needs to know: The truth! Try to think about the past week and count the total drinks/cigarettes/pills consumed. Also let your doctor know whether you are interested in cutting down or discontinuing use altogether. Your doctor can work with you to optimize your treatment, whether it’s medications to reduce your cravings or connecting you to support groups.

Mental health

Most primary care clinics routinely screen all patients for depression, and some may screen for anxiety disorders as well. If you screen positive, your doctor will almost certainly ask you more questions about your mood, whether you are experiencing anxiety, and even whether you have experienced hallucinations or paranoia. This is not because your doctor thinks you’re crazy; rather, these symptoms may accompany severe illness and could affect treatment decisions.

What your doctor may ask: To assess for depression, your doctor will ask about your sleep, appetite, interest in activities, feelings of guilt, and any changes in concentration or energy level. Your doctor will also ask whether you have experienced thoughts about ending your life. These questions can feel probing and intimate — especially if you came to the doctor’s office for an unrelated complaint, such as heartburn. However, your doctor is asking these questions to develop a better understanding about the length and severity of your symptoms in order to make the correct diagnosis. Here too, it’s helpful to think about your doctor as an ally. If you’re worried about this information going into your medical record, you can request this information to be marked as sensitive. No one is allowed to see your medical records without your permission, unless they are caring for you.

What your doctor needs to know: Sometimes depressed mood and anxiety can be related to an underlying medical illness such as heart, lung, or thyroid problems. Mention any physical symptoms you have noticed, even if they seem unrelated. If this is your first episode of feeling anxious or depressed, think about any life events that could be contributing (such as a recent break-up, job loss, or move), as this may help your doctor in differentiating between an adjustment disorder and a major depressive episode. Talk about your coffee habits and alcohol use, which can affect sleep and anxiety.

The bottom line

Sharing the most intimate details of your life with your doctor is understandably nerve-racking. Rest assured your doctor will keep this information confidential, unless there is a risk you could seriously harm yourself or others. It helps to realize that doctors talk about sex, substances, and mental health with almost all of their patients, and they will meet you where you are. Try to relax, take a deep breath, and remember: the doctor is on your side.

How to stay strong and coordinated as you age


So many physical abilities decline with normal aging, including strength, swiftness, and stamina. In addition to these muscle-related declines, there are also changes that occur in coordinating the movements of the body. Together, these changes mean that as you age, you may not be able to perform activities such as running to catch a bus, walking around the garden, carrying groceries into the house, keeping your balance on a slippery surface, or playing catch with your grandchildren as well as you used to. But do these activities have to deteriorate? Let’s look at why these declines happen — and what you can do to actually improve your strength and coordination.

Changes in strength

Changes in strength, swiftness, and stamina with age are all associated with decreasing muscle mass. Although there is not much decline in your muscles between ages 20 and 40, after age 40 there can be a decline of 1% to 2% per year in lean body mass and 1.5% to 5% per year in strength.

The loss of muscle mass is related to both a reduced number of muscle fibers and a reduction in fiber size. If the fibers become too small, they die. Fast-twitch muscle fibers shrink and die more rapidly than others, leading to a loss of muscle speed. In addition, the capacity for muscles to undergo repair also diminishes with age. One cause of these changes is decline in muscle-building hormones and growth factors including testosterone, estrogen, dehydroepiandrosterone (better known as DHEA), growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor.

Changes in coordination

Changes in coordination are less related to muscles and more related to the brain and nervous system. Multiple brain centers need to be, well, coordinated to allow you to do everything from hitting a golf ball to keeping a coffee cup steady as you walk across a room. This means that the wiring of the brain, the so-called white matter that connects the different brain regions, is crucial.

Unfortunately, most people in our society over age 60 who eat a western diet and don’t get enough exercise have some tiny "ministrokes" (also called microvascular or small vessel disease) in their white matter. Although the strokes are so small that they are not noticeable when they occur, they can disrupt the connections between important brain coordination centers such as the frontal lobe (which directs movements) and the cerebellum (which provides on-the-fly corrections to those movements as needed).

In addition, losing dopamine-producing cells is common as you get older, which can slow down your movements and reduce your coordination, so even if you don’t develop Parkinson’s disease, many people develop some of the abnormalities in movement seen in Parkinson's.

Lastly, changes in vision — the "eye" side of hand-eye coordination — are also important. Eye diseases are much more common in older adults, including cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. In addition, mild difficulty seeing can be the first sign of cognitive disorders of aging, including Lewy body disease and Alzheimer’s.

How to improve your strength and coordination

It turns out that one of the most important causes of reduced strength and coordination with aging is simply reduced levels of physical activity. There is a myth in our society that it is fine to do progressively less exercise the older you get. The truth is just the opposite! As you age, it becomes more important to exercise regularly — perhaps even increasing the amount of time you spend exercising to compensate for bodily changes in hormones and other factors that you cannot control. The good news is that participating in exercises to improve strength and coordination can help people of any age. (Note, however, that you may need to be more careful with your exercise activities as you age to prevent injuries. If you’re not sure what the best types of exercises are for you, ask your doctor or a physical therapist.)

Here are some things you can do to improve your strength and coordination, whether you are 18 or 88 years old:

  • Participate in aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, biking, swimming, or aerobic classes at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week.
  • Participate in exercise that helps with strength, balance, and flexibility at least two hours per week, such as yoga, tai chi, Pilates, and isometric weightlifting.
  • Practice sports that you want to improve at, such as golf, tennis, and basketball.
  • Take advantage of lessons from teachers and advice from coaches and trainers to improve your exercise skills.
  • Work with your doctor to treat diseases that can interfere with your ability to exercise, including orthopedic injuries, cataracts and other eye problems, and Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.
  • Fuel your brain and muscles with a Mediterranean menu of foods including fish, olive oil, avocados, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, and poultry. Eat other foods sparingly.
  • Sleep well — you can actually improve your skills overnight while you are sleeping.

When is a drug rash more than just a rash?

close-up photo of doctor examining a rash on a person's leg, gloved hands on either side of the affected area

You were recently started on antibiotics for an infection and you are now doing well. But slowly your skin begins to itch, and the telltale signs of a rash are already popping up — first on your torso, and now spreading to your arms and legs. What do you do? Should you worry? Should you see a medical professional?

Rashes are a common and pesky side effect of many medications. It can be so disheartening to be getting better from one ailment only to discover that you have another issue to address. While these itchy eruptions can be annoying, they usually run their course over a week or two and can be treated with topical medications.

But not all drug rashes are created equal — and some can even be deadly. Luckily the scary ones are pretty rare, but it’s still a good idea to know how to spot them. How can you tell the serious rashes from ones that are just a nuisance, but will get better with time and treatment?

Types of drug rashes

There are two main allergic rashes that may happen after taking a drug. The most immediate type of reaction happens within hours. Hives appear and move around the skin. Since this process is related to the release of histamine, antihistamines (available over the counter at a drugstore) are the typical treatment.

There is also a delayed type of drug rash that comes up four to 14 days after you start taking a medication. Pink and red bumps appear on your chest and back, and spread to the arms and legs over the course of days. Unlike hives, these bumps don’t move around, and after a few days things may start to get better, but you may have peeling skin much like a healing sunburn.

This delayed type of rash doesn’t respond as well to antihistamines, but an over-the-counter topical cortisone cream (or one of its stronger prescription-strength versions) can help speed the healing process along.

When is a drug rash cause for concern and a visit to the ER?

With hives, the main concern is that you’re experiencing a whole-body reaction that goes beyond the skin, one that can make breathing difficult or dangerously drops your blood pressure. If you experience either of these symptoms, it’s very important to get to the ED.

These immediate, life-threatening reactions can be treated with steroids, epinephrine, and higher-dose antihistamines than you can find at the drug store. While they are scary, these types of allergic reactions to a drug are not hard to identify, and many doctors are skilled at spotting dramatic changes in your breathing or blood pressure. It’s important to tell the doctor you see what medications you have taken and how long ago you took them.

Know the signs of severe cutaneous adverse reactions (SCARs)

In the more delayed type of rash, symptoms can be more difficult to diagnose. The most common triggers for these types of rashes include antibiotics, antiseizure medications, antigout medications like allopurinol, and even over-the-counter medications like NSAIDs. (This isn’t a complete list, and any new medication should be regarded with caution.)

As for the rash, when it’s just itching things are usually fine, but still a nuisance. When the skin starts to hurt, or turns a deeper purple color, doctors worry about something more serious. If your skin starts to blister up or you see pustules, or if you notice sores in your mouth, eyes, or your genitalia, these are red flags and you should get to an urgent care clinic or the ER and ask for a dermatology consultation. Sores in the mouth can be so severe that drooling becomes a common symptom, because patients avoid swallowing due to the pain.

If you start to feel ill, like you have the flu, or if you’re getting puffy from swelling, especially in the face, this could mean it’s a severe drug hypersensitivity syndrome. Sometimes people develop a fever, a drop in their blood pressure, or their liver, kidneys, and heart can all be affected by drug hypersensitivity syndromes. These are so severe that most patients need to be admitted to the hospital, and sometimes even to the burn or intensive care unit.

While there are different names for different types of severe drug reactions, including Stevens-Johnson syndrome (SJS), drug rash with eosinophilia and systemic symptoms (DRESS), and acute generalized exanthematous pustulosis (AGEP), they are often grouped together as severe cutaneous adverse reactions (SCARs).

What happens if you develop a SCAR from a medication?

The first step is getting evaluated by a specialist, either in a dermatological clinic or the hospital. Finding someone who has expertise in managing these types of reactions is critical. A doctor (usually a dermatologist) may biopsy your skin, and they may have to start systemic medications that suppress your immune system. Sometimes, patients with SCARs also require a stay in a hospital.

The most important thing you can do is to keep an eye on your skin and its symptoms if you’re taking a new medication, or even if you’ve increased the dose of an old medication. If you suspect that you may be dealing with one of these SCARs, be sure to seek help from an expert, like a board-certified dermatologist, so that you can rest assured that you’re getting the care you need. Patients who are treated appropriately generally do well. Your doctors should also report these reactions to the FDA.

Once you’re on the mend, things can start to get back to normal, but it’s important to follow up with your doctors because there are some long-term issues that are important to pay attention to. Ultimately your doctors and healthcare team will advise you on what exactly is safe in the future. Remember that if you’re worried about one of these reactions, it’s important to stop the medication as soon as possible, but with the input of your doctors.