A thin layer of moisture coats the walls of a woman’s vagina. This moisture provides an alkaline environment that sperm can survive in and travel in for sexual reproduction. These vaginal secretions also lubricate the vaginal wall. This reduces friction during sexual intercourse.
As a woman ages, changes in hormone production can cause the vaginal walls to thin. Thinner walls mean fewer cells that secrete moisture. This can lead to vaginal dryness. Hormonal changes are the most common cause of vaginal dryness, but they are not the only cause.
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 that do not go away or that reoccur
- vaginal itching or stinging
Vaginal dryness can be a source of embarrassment. This may prevent a woman from discussing symptoms with her physician or partner (Mayo Clinic). However, the condition is a common occurrence that affects many women.
Falling estrogen levels are the chief cause of vaginal dryness. As a woman ages, she begins to produce less estrogen. This leads to the end of menstruation during a time known as perimenopause. However, menopause is not the only condition that causes a decrease in estrogen production. Other causes include:
- cigarette smoking
- excessive stress
- immune system disorders, such as Sjögren’s 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.
Some creams and lotions that women apply to the vaginal area may cause dryness and irritation. Douching can also lead to vaginal dryness and irritation.
While vaginal dryness rarely indicates a serious medical condition, women should seek help when their discomfort lasts beyond a few days or they experience discomfort during sexual intercourse. If left untreated, vaginal dryness can cause sores or cracking in the vagina’s tissues.
If the condition is accompanied by severe vaginal bleeding, seek immediate medical attention.
During the exam, a doctor may examine the vaginal walls to look for lacerations or feel for skin thinning. He or she may also take a sample of vaginal discharge to test for the presence of harmful bacteria.
Additionally, hormone tests can determine if you are in perimenopause or menopause.
(This information is a summary. Seek medical attention if you suspect you need urgent care.)
Because many products can irritate delicate vaginal skin, it is important to seek evaluation and treatment advice at a physician’s office if the condition persists. However, there are many over-the-counter lubricants that can be applied to the vaginal area to reduce dryness and discomfort. These lubricants and moisturizing creams can also change the vagina’s pH, reducing the likelihood a urinary tract infection (UTI) will occur.
Women should choose a lubricant specifically intended for vaginal use. The lubricant should be water-based and have no perfumes, herbal extracts, or artificial colors, which can cause irritation. Lubricants such as petroleum jelly and mineral oil can damage latex condoms and diaphragms used for birth control.
In some instances, a healthcare provider will prescribe an estrogen therapy, in the form of a pill, cream, or ring. These therapies release estrogen. Creams and rings release estrogen directly to the tissues. The pills are more likely to be used when you have other uncomfortable menopause symptoms, such as hot flashes.
Refraining from using irritating products, such as douches, in the vagina can help to prevent dryness. Avoiding condoms that contain nonoyxnol-9 or N-9, a chemical that can cause vaginal dryness, may also help prevent some vaginal dryness.
However, age- or reproductive-related changes to the vagina cannot be prevented.