Is it just momentary dryness or could it be vaginal atrophy? It sounds scary but knowing the basics and becoming educated about your treatment options is essential to managing your sexual health.
What is vaginal atrophy?
Vaginal atrophy, caused by decreased estrogen levels that lead to thinning, drying and inflammation of the vaginal walls, may affect between 20-45% of postmenopausal women. Vaginal atrophy can decrease a woman’s quality of life as well as her sex life. Healthy vaginal function also is closely connected with having a healthy urinary function.
Common symptoms of vaginal atrophy
Common symptoms of vaginal atrophy include dryness, irritation, burning, dysuria (pain, burning or discomfort upon urination), dyspareunia (painful intercourse) and vaginal discharge.
Should you seek treatment?
Vaginal atrophy tends to be progressive and often only improves with medical treatment. Therefore, it’s important to talk to your doctor if you are concerned that you are experiencing vaginal atrophy. However, this condition is believed to be underdiagnosed so you may need to encourage your doctor to learn more about this topic.
Treatment option 1: Vaginal moisturizer
This moisturizer, which is applied every 2-3 days, restores some moisture to the vagina. These products, which tend to have a longer effect than lubricants, can easily be purchased over the counter.
Treatment option 2: Water-based lubricant
Also available over the counter, lubricants reduce discomfort during intercourse. Experts recommend selecting products that don’t contain glycerin due to potential painful reactions for women who are sensitive to this chemical. Also avoid petroleum-based lubricants since they can break down latex condoms.
Treatment option 3: Take your time during intercourse
When engaging in intercourse, give yourself time to become aroused. This extra time spent in foreplay will allow your vagina to become lubricated, thus reducing potential discomfort.
Treatment option 4: Topical vaginal estrogen
Topical vaginal estrogen provides relief of symptoms while also keeping the estrogen dosage low, thus limiting your exposure and lowering the risk of triggering health issues. There are three types of topical vaginal estrogen: vaginal estrogen cream, vaginal estrogen ring and vaginal estrogen tablet. Talk with your doctor to identify the best form for you.
Treatment option 5: Systemic estrogen therapy
Systemic estrogen therapy includes estrogen pills, patches, gel or an estrogen ring with a higher dose as well as progestin. However, you need to work closely with your doctor since this type of hormone therapy increases the risk of breast and endometrial cancer.
Research on other types of treatment
Some studies have found that dietary supplements such as soy, black cohosh and other herbs do not counteract the issues women face with vaginal atrophy. If you wish to try this approach, talk to your doctor, especially since herbal products are unregulated and can cause dangerous interactions with other medications.