What is vaginal dryness?
The vaginal wall is a mucous membrane, a lining that protects and lubricates your vagina. Glands near the cervix produce mucus that coats the vaginal wall. This keeps it moist, protecting the wall from microbes (germs).
Vaginal dryness can affect women of any age. It is estimated almost 20% of women between the ages of 18 and 50 experience some vagina dryness during sex. The causes can range from lifestyle choices, such as using douches, to certain medical conditions or medications. The female hormone estrogen helps control how much lubricant is produced, so dryness becomes more common as women enter menopause and their estrogen levels drop.
Vaginal dryness is not a serious condition but if it is uncomfortable and left untreated, it can get worse and negatively affect a woman’s quality of life. It can make sex painful, and it can also cause vaginal atrophy, which in turn can lead to infections.
What other symptoms might occur with vaginal dryness?
Women with vaginal dryness may also find it painful when they have a cervical smear during their regular gynecological check-up.
Women may find that the appearance of their vaginal discharge changes as well. The discharge may have an odor and it may be watery or discolored.
What causes vaginal dryness?
Vaginal dryness is most commonly caused by menopause, either natural or induced. Induced menopause occurs when women go into menopause because their ovaries were removed or stopped producing estrogen due to a medical condition or treatment.
Other vaginal dryness causes include:
- Medications like chemotherapy that block estrogen
- Over-the-counter products, such as cold and allergy medications
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- Smoking cigarettes
When should you see a doctor for vaginal dryness?
Although vaginal dryness is not a serious medical condition, it can affect your quality of life, especially your sex life. It can also lead to a condition called vaginal atrophy, which can cause other uncomfortable symptoms, like itching and frequent infections.
If you have vaginal dryness and it is disrupting your ability to enjoy sex or other aspects of your life, this is the time to speak with your doctor about possible treatments.
How is the cause of vaginal dryness diagnosed?
When you speak with your doctor about vaginal dryness, your doctor will ask you questions about your medical history, your lifestyle, and if you take any medications, including over-the-counter products. This will likely be followed by a pelvic examination, including the vaginal wall.
There are no tests to diagnose vaginal dryness but your doctor may ask for blood tests to check your estrogen level or to diagnose an underlying medical condition that may be causing your symptoms.
How is vaginal dryness treated?
Vaginal dryness is not an inevitable part of aging. If you are uncomfortable, your doctor can discuss options for treatment to improve vaginal moisture and steps you can take to reduce your risk of dryness.
Medical treatments for vaginal dryness
- Avoiding over-the-counter medications, such as cold or allergy medicines, that can cause vaginal dryness
- Estrogen creams, rings or capsules that apply estrogen locally to the vaginal wall
- Oral estrogen or transdermal (via skin patch) estrogen to supplement decreased estrogen levels, which contribute to vaginal dryness
Lifestyle treatments for vaginal dryness
- Applying moisturizers designed specifically for vaginal use, such as K-Y Liquibeads or Replens
- Avoiding strong scented soaps or body washes near your vagina
- Not douching, which can interfere with the vagina’s pH levels and reduce its natural moisture
- Quitting smoking
- Taking more time before sexual intercourse to allow your body to produce more lubrication, or using artificial lubricant during sex
What are the potential complications of vaginal dryness?
Women with vaginal dryness can develop a condition called vaginal atrophy—the vaginal wall thins and can become inflamed. Women with vaginal atrophy can be at higher risk of having:
- Urinary frequency, the need to urinate often
- Urinary incontinence, the inability to keep from leaking urine
- Urinary urgency, the sudden and immediate need to urinate
- Vaginal infections