The endocrine system is a network of glands and organs that produce, store, and secrete hormones. These hormones are very important for a woman’s health especially during the years when she might become pregnant. Sometimes called “the change,” menopause is the time, around age 50, when a woman’s ovaries produce fewer hormones and she stops having a monthly period. Menopause takes place gradually over four or five years. A woman may experience a number of uncomfortable symptoms during this time, including vaginal dryness.
What is vaginal atrophy?
Vaginal atrophy (also referred to as vulvovaginal atrophy, urogenital atrophy, or atrophic vaginitis) is a condition in which the lining of the vagina becomes thinner and drier. This condition can lead to vaginal and urinary tract problems.
A drop in estrogen, a female sex hormone, causes the vagina to become dryer and more fragile. This is the leading cause of vaginal atrophy. A drop in estrogen levels may occur:
- During perimenopause (the years leading up to menopause)
- After menopause
- When breastfeeding
- When taking certain medications
- If you smoke
- After surgical removal of both ovaries
- After radiation therapy for ovarian or uterine cancer
- As a side effect of breast cancer treatment
What are the symptoms of vaginal atrophy?
You may have no symptoms at all. or you may have:
- Vaginal dryness
- Itching or burning feelings in your vagina
- Discolored and unpleasant smelling, or copious vaginal mucous
- Decreased lubrication, discomfort, or pain during sexual intercourse/li>
- Light bleeding after intercourse or random vaginal spotting
- Burning sensation when you urinate (pass water)
- Frequent, strong urges to urinate (overactive bladder)
- Urinary incontinence (unintended release of urine)
Vaginal atrophy can cause vaginal and urinary tract infections (UTIs).
Sexual activity is a very important part of overall health? The vaginal dryness often associated with vaginal atrophy usually becomes worse with a lack of sexual activity. Sex stimulates blood flow in the vagina and aids in the production of vaginal fluids. So, sex actually keeps the vagina lubricated and healthy.
- About 50% of post-menopausal women experience vaginal atrophy symptoms, including irritation and dryness
- Only about 7% seek treatment at the first sign of symptoms
- 1 in 4 women with vaginal atrophy report that it has a negative effect on other areas of their life, including sleep, sexual health, and general enjoyment
Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information
How is vaginal atrophy diagnosed?
Your medical provider will ask about your symptoms and do a pelvic exam to look at the appearance of your vagina. Your medical provider also may test a urine sample, perform a Pap test or ultrasound, and/or measure blood estrogen levels.
What are the treatment options?
For many woman, non-prescription (over-the-counter) treatments can help, especially if symptoms are mild. Your healthcare provider may recommend vaginal lubricants or vaginal moisturizers that you can use, especially during sexual activity.
Prescription treatments include low-dose estrogen therapies, including:
- Estrogen cream placed in the vagina at bedtime
- Estrogen ring, a soft, flexible ring inserted into the vagina every three months
- Estrogen tablet inserted into the vagina with a disposable applicator
- Systemic estrogen, also known as hormone therapy, available in a pill, patch, gel, or spray form
- Ospemifene, an oral, non-estrogen medication
Depending on the treatment, there may be health risks that you’ll want to discuss with your healthcare provider.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Is my condition temporary or long-term?
- Are there non-prescription (over-the-counter) treatments that might help?
- What are some other ways to treat my condition?
- What are the risks and benefits of my treatment options?
The development of this resource was made from the generous support of our sponsor TherapeuticsMD.