Everything You Need to Know About ‘Female Viagra’

Three years ago, the holy grail for women with a low sex drive seemed to have arrived. A little pink pill called Addyi—pronounced add-ee and erroneously nicknamed the female Viagra—was the first prescription medication ever approved by the FDA to help reinvigorate a woman’s flagging desire.

But days after Addyi got the green light, its developer, Sprout Pharmaceuticals, was sold, and the momentum fizzled. Factors like the med’s high price and a lack of awareness among doctors made it hard to come by. Also, fewer than 10 percent of pharmacies kept it in stock.

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Fast-forward to this summer. Cindy Eckert (formerly Whitehead), cofounder of Sprout and CEO of The Pink Ceiling, a women’s start-up incubator, is back in charge of Addyi after some legal wrangling. She’s relaunching it at a cheaper cost (a maximum out-of-pocket fee of $99 per month) and making it available to all women via telemedicine. “Our number one objective,” she says, “is ensuring that women have access to this treatment.”

It’s about time the pharma industry gave some love to women’s bedroom needs. “There’s this idea that we don’t have a desire for sex the way men do, or if we don’t want sex, that’s our natural state of being,” says Tami Rowen, MD, an ob-gyn at the University of California at San Francisco who specializes in sexual health. “That’s obviously wrong.”

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How It Works

Addyi is designed for the approximately 1 in 10 women who suffer from a regrettable disinterest in sex for no apparent reason (versus, say, because they’re depressed or their partner has cut down on showering). The condition is called hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD)—and not all patients are married middle-agers. Women in their 20s and 30s, coupled up or single, are similarly affected and can have a more intense emotional fallout, says Leah Millheiser, MD, director of the female sexual medicine program at Stanford University and chief medical officer at Sprout.

Experts think that women with HSDD have an imbalance between dopamine and norepinephrine, neuro-chemicals that make women crave nooky, and serotonin, which does the opposite. Addyi—when taken daily, like the Pill or an antidepressant—works to tweak those brain chemicals. What it doesn’t do: revive the sex organs themselves (unlike Viagra, which physically prompts a blood rush to the penis).

Who It’s For

How well Addyi works has been the subject of great debate. One 2013 study found “significant improvements” in desire, while a highly publicized 2016 one reported “minimal improvement to no change.” (In the latter, women had just one additional “satisfying sexual event” every two months.)

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For her part, Eckert says that about 40 percent of women with HSDD don’t respond at all to Addyi, but those who do could potentially see far better results. “A strong responder might have one additional sexual event per week,” confirms Lauren Streicher, MD, medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause. And while even that may sound underwhelming to some, “when you’re starting with no sex drive at all,” says Dr. Streicher, “this can be huge.”

The Side Effects

Like many Rx drugs, Addyi has potential side effects, including fatigue, nausea, low blood pressure, and dizziness. And—buzzkill alert—booze can enhance some of these issues, so patients are advised not to drink. “If you’re going to have more than two drinks, skip the pill that day,” says Dr. Rowen, who adds that an alcohol-related Addyi study used iffy methodology.

Where to Get It

Still, because of the drinking factor, Addyi has been grouped by the FDA in the same category as some antipsychotics and given a special designation that requires doctors and pharmacies to be certified before doling it out. For women with uncertified docs—or for those who don’t feel comfortable talking about their sex drive with their GP— you can get connected to a doctor via addyi.com who can prescribe the drug via telemedicine. After a consultation, they can send an Rx to a pharmacy that will ship the meds to you for free.

Even if Addyi doesn’t end up being the fix for everyone, it will at least reboot crucial conversations and may help pave the way for other sexual innovations for women. “It gives women permission to say, ‘My sex life isn’t what I’d like it to be, and I want to do something about it,'” says Dr. Streicher. “Our sexuality deserves the same attention as men’s does.”

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