Vaginal dryness is the result of decreased levels of estrogen. Estrogen is the female hormone that keeps the lining of the vagina lubricated, thick, and elastic.
Lack of vaginal moisture may not be a big deal to some, but it can have a large impact on a woman’s sex life by causing pain and discomfort during intercourse. Fortunately, there are several different treatments available to relieve the symptoms of vaginal dryness.
What are the effects of vaginal dryness?
Vaginal dryness can cause discomfort in the vaginal and pelvic regions. Vaginal dryness can also cause:
- loss of interest in sex
- pain with sexual intercourse
- light bleeding following intercourse
- urinary tract infections (UTIs) that don’t go away or that reoccur
- vaginal itching or stinging
Vaginal dryness can be a source of embarrassment. This may prevent women from discussing symptoms with their physician or partner; however, the condition is a common occurrence that affects many women.
Causes of vaginal dryness
Falling estrogen levels are the chief cause of vaginal dryness. Women begin to produce less estrogen as they age. This leads to the end of menstruation during a time called perimenopause.
However, menopause isn’t the only condition that causes a decrease in estrogen production. Other causes include:
- cigarette smoking
- excessive stress
- immune system disorders, such as Sjögren syndrome
- rigorous exercise
- some cancer treatments, such as radiation to the pelvis, hormone therapy, or chemotherapy
- surgical removal of the ovaries
Some medications can also reduce secretions in the body. Douching may also cause dryness and irritation, as well as some creams and lotions that are applied to the vaginal area.
There are many different treatment options available for vaginal dryness. A doctor can prescribe some, and some can be obtained over the counter.
Topical estrogen cream
A common treatment of vaginal dryness caused by low estrogen levels is topical estrogen therapy. This means medications that are applied directly to the vaginal area to relieve symptoms.
This method involves much less absorption of estrogen when compared to estrogen taken as a pill. As such, these medications are felt to be a fairly low risk.
Examples of topical estrogen therapies include:
- Vaginal ring (Estring). This flexible ring is inserted into the vagina where it continually releases low amounts of estrogen into the tissues. The ring is replaced every 3 weeks.
- Vaginal cream (Estrace, Premarin). An applicator is often used to apply the cream into the vagina. Research has shown that estrogen cream is an effective and well-tolerated treatment for vaginal atrophy and dryness when compared with a placebo.
- Vaginal tablet (Vagifem). This treatment also involves an applicator to place a tablet into the vagina.
Research that looks at the long-term effects of topical estrogen is currently lacking. The methods given here are considered to be safe, however, especially when compared with traditional hormone replacement therapy.
Women with a history of breast cancer or who may be pregnant or breast-feeding should talk to their doctor about the safety of topical estrogen therapy. Nonhormonal treatment options are available.
Over-the-counter treatments are also available that may help with vaginal dryness.
Lubricants are used at the time of intercourse to increase moisture and make sex less painful. Water-based lubricants are recommended over oil-based lubricants, as oil-based ones can lead to irritation and condom breakage.
Vaginal moisturizers can be used every day to every couple of days to help maintain the vagina’s natural moisture.
There are several ways to combat vaginal dryness that involve simple lifestyle changes:
Having sex on a regular basis can help with vaginal dryness, whether alone or with a partner.
Blood flow to the vaginal tissues increases when a woman is aroused, and this helps to stimulate moisture production.
Adequate foreplay and arousal before sex will help with vaginal dryness and make sex more enjoyable.
Many body products and personal hygiene products contain fragrances and dyes that can irritate or dry out the vaginal tissue.
The vagina contains a delicate balance of good bacteria and is self-cleaning. There is no need for douching or using fragrant soaps around the sensitive vaginal area.
Foods that contain phytoestrogens
Phytoestrogens are compounds that act similarly to estrogen in the body. They are found in plant-based foods, including soy, nuts, seeds, and tofu.
Research suggests that phytoestrogens are associated with a modest improvement in vaginal dryness and hot flashes.
Underwear made of synthetic materials can be clingy, make the vaginal irritation worse, and may restrict air movement. People should choose cotton underwear, which promotes good airflow and allows the vagina to “breathe.”
Treatment with topical estrogen cream is a low-risk treatment method. Mild symptoms can be treated with over-the-counter options, including vaginal moisturizers and lubricants used during sexual activity.
However, if you experience vaginal dryness that doesn’t go away, discuss it with your doctor so they can help you find the right treatment.
Categories: Reproductive health