Vaginal cytokine profile and microbiota before and after lubricant use compared with condomless vaginal sex: a preliminary observational study

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Background: Limited data suggest that personal lubricants may damage the vaginal mucosal epithelium, alter the vaginal microbiota, and increase inflammation. We compared vaginal cytokine profiles and microbiota before and after vaginal lubricant use and condomless vaginal sex. Methods: Reproductive-age women were recruited to a 10-week observational cohort study and were asked to self-collect vaginal samples and behavioral diaries daily. This nested case–control analysis utilized samples collected before and after self-reported condomless sexual activity with lubricants (22 case participants) and without lubricants (22 control participants). Controls were matched to cases on race/ethnicity. Microbiota composition was characterized by sequencing amplicons of the 16S rRNA gene V3–V4 regions. Cytokine concentrations were quantified using a magnetic bead 41-plex panel assay and read using a Bio-Plex 200 array reader. Wilcoxon signed-rank tests were used to assess baseline differences in vaginal cytokines between cases and controls as well as differences pre- and post-exposure. Linear mixed effects models were used to examine differences in relative post-to-pre change in each individual cytokine between matched cases and controls. Similar analyses were conducted for the microbiota data. Results: Mean age was 29.8 years (SD 6.8), and 63.6% were African American. There were few statistically significant changes in cytokines or microbiota before and after exposure in cases or controls. In mixed-effects modeling, the mean relative post-to-pre change of cytokines was higher in cases vs. controls for macrophage derived chemokine (MDC) (p = 0.03). The microbiota data revealed no significant changes when measured by similarity scores, diversity indexes and descriptive community state types (CST) transition analyses. However, post sexual activity, the mean relative abundance of L. crispatus decreased for those who used lubricants (particularly those who were L. iners-dominated prior to exposure). Conclusions: Although there were overall few differences in the vaginal microbiota and cytokine profiles of lubricant users and controls before and after condomless vaginal sex, there was a trend toward decreases in relative abundance of L. crispatus following use of lubricant. Future larger studies that take into account osmolarity and composition of lubricants may provide additional insights.




Tuddenham, S., Stennett, C. A., Cone, R. A., Ravel, J., Macintyre, A. N., Ghanem, K. G., … Brotman, R. M. (2021). Vaginal cytokine profile and microbiota before and after lubricant use compared with condomless vaginal sex: a preliminary observational study. BMC Infectious Diseases, 21(1).

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