In partnership with Replens
Most women aren’t dying to talk about Vaginal dryness, but it’s an incredibly common condition—and one that you don’t need to live with, says Dr. Nancy Durand, an Associate Professor of Obstetrics & Gynaecology at the University of Toronto and a physician at Sunnybrook Hospital. “Women are not always comfortable bringing it up with their doctor. But [you] should, because there are treatments,” she says.
What causes vaginal dryness?
The most common cause of vaginal dryness is menopause. Normally, there’s a thin layer of moisture in the vagina that keeps it lubricated. However, estrogen levels drop during menopause, which may cause this moisture layer to become thinner.
“You could also develop [vaginal dryness] at a younger age,” says Dr. Durand. Common reasons before menopause include chemotherapy, surgical removal of the ovaries, as well as breastfeeding after childbirth and certain medications.
Symptoms to look out for
Vaginal dryness causes an uncomfortable burning or itching sensation during everyday activities. “Women complain about a lack of moisture and a lack of discharge,” says Dr. Durand. Sex can be painful and could even result in bleeding.
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to get them checked out by a doctor. “We want to rule out other causes—it could be an infection, which we would treat differently,” says Dr. Durand. Conditions like yeast infections, STIs and urinary tract infections can all cause similar burning or itching sensations.
Beyond overall discomfort and painful sex, vaginal dryness can also make exercise uncomfortable and can affect quality of sleep.
How to treat vaginal dryness
Vaginal dryness typically doesn’t improve on its own, so you’ll want to find ways to lessen the symptoms. “In my experience it’s pretty unusual to go through menopause and not experience this. Unfortunately, it’s not something that’s temporary. Things like hot flashes—they might happen for a few years. However, vaginal dryness from low estrogen doesn’t go away,” says Dr. Durand.
But relief is possible! There are a number of different ways you can treat vaginal dryness:
These non-hormonal moisturizers—inserted via applicator—are sold over-the-counter and are designed to replenish the vaginal wall. “This is [a treatment] that would be ongoing, you use it twice a week,” explains Dr. Durand. So, rather than a lubricant you use right before sex, vaginal moisturizers, when used correctly, keep the area from drying out for several days, although some people use it daily. “See what works for you,” says Dr. Durand, who also suggests using a vaginal moisturizer regularly for a few weeks before determining whether it’s helping.
A water-based lubricant can be helpful just before intercourse. As opposed to the vaginal moisturizers, “they act immediately,” explains Dr. Durand. However, the effect is temporary; you’ll need to re-apply before each encounter.
If the non-hormonal treatments aren’t working, you may need a treatment that will target your body’s lack of estrogen. Hormonal treatments can either be topical—for example, via a cream that’s applied to the vagina, or oral. “If [you’re experiencing] general symptoms of menopause, [you] might need oral estrogen,” explains Dr. Durand.
What to avoid
There are plenty of reasons to avoid smoking, and this is another one—smoking can compound vaginal dryness because it affects hormones, including estrogen. You should also avoid scented soaps as well as douching. “Sometimes when people feel itching and discomfort they think—I want to clean there,” says Dr. Durand. But this can affect healthy bacteria and cells.
It’s important to recognize vaginal dryness as a valid health concern that should be properly treated, says Dr. Durand. “It’s not something we should minimize. It really does affect many aspects of life—you want to maintain your physical, mental and sexual health. Women don’t have to suffer in silence.”