Vaginal dryness can be extremely uncomfortable and can occur at any time in a woman’s life. It can be triggered by a range of causes including certain health conditions, medicines, hormone levels and psychological issues
Normally, the vagina stays naturally moist with a thin layer of clear fluid produced by the cervix at the top of the vagina. It has several purposes:
- Protects the vagina against infections like thrush
- Keeps the vagina clean by flushing out dead cells and menstrual blood
- Lubricates the vagina to aid intercourse
The hormone oestrogen helps trigger this fluid and keeps the lining of the vagina healthy, thick and elastic. When oestrogen levels drop during menopause or at any other time, it causes something called vaginal atrophy which reduces the amount of moisture and makes the vagina thinner and less elastic.
Vaginal dryness symptoms
Vaginal dryness symptoms include:
- Loss of vaginal elasticity
- Vaginal lining becomes thinner and dryer
- Irritation - can occur as the vagina becomes less acidic
- Itching or burning
- Painful intercourse
Vaginal dryness and menopause
Over half of 51 to 60 year olds experience vaginal changes during menopause, also referred to as the change of life. This is when the production of the hormone oestrogen begins to slow down and ultimately stop.
Symptoms of menopause include:
- Hot flushes
- Mood swings
- Facial hair
- Deeper voice
General causes of vaginal dryness:
- Low levels of oestrogen
- Relationship problems
- Feelings of fear or guilt
- Lack of foreplay before sexual intercourse
- Hygiene products, like sprays or harsh soaps
- Washing powders
- Pool or hot tub chemicals
- Childbirth or breastfeeding
- Radiotherapy or chemotherapy treatment for cancer
- Surgical removal of the ovaries
- Sjögren's syndrome (an autoimmune disorder that attacks cells in the body that produce moisture)
- Allergy and cold medications and certain antidepressants
Causes of vaginal dryness more likely after menopause:
- Low levels of oestrogen
- Fewer 'friendly' bacteria
- Less elasticity
- Less acidity which may lead to infections like thrush
Diagnosing vaginal dryness
Seek medical advice if you experience burning, itching, or discomfort in the vaginal area. Your doctor will ask you about your medical history, symptoms and anything that may be worsening them.
Your vagina will be checked for any thinning or redness. The doctor may do a cervical smear test of cells from the cervix and take swabs from the vagina and cervix to check for infection.
Effects of vaginal dryness on daily life include:
- Difficulty walking or exercising
- Emotional stress
Effects of vaginal dryness on your sex life
Vaginal dryness can have a huge impact on your sex life. As a result some women experience discomfort and even pain during intercourse. Seek medical advice if sex is painful and take time for foreplay before penetrative sex to make sure that you are fully relaxed and aroused.
Treatments for vaginal dryness
- Vaginal moisturisers or creams. These can be used twice or three times a week and can last up to two days.
- Water based lubricants. They are similar to the body’s natural moisture and can be applied around the labia before sex.
- Petroleum based products. These can be applied around the vagina but should not be used when using condoms as they can damage condoms and make them more likely to break.
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
If you are only experiencing vaginal dryness as a result of low oestrogen levels, a type of HRT that can be applied directly to your vagina may be recommended by a doctor.
Tablets, patches or implants are usually only needed if you have other menopausal symptoms, such as hot flushes.