Vaginal dryness, or atrophic vaginitis, is an irritation of the vagina caused by a thinning and shrinking of the vaginal tissues and decreased lubrication of the vaginal walls.
Symptoms of Vaginal Dryness
- Vaginal soreness (may also have itching or burning sensation)
- Annoying and painful intercourse
- Frequent urination and urinary urgency
- Light bleeding after intercourse
What Causes Vaginal Dryness?
Decreased estrogen is the most common cause, which is why vaginal dryness most frequently affects postmenopausal women. Removal of the ovaries, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and radiation treatments also cause decreases in estrogen and thus can cause vaginal dryness. In some cases vaginal dryness is also caused by a lack or loss of estrogen following childbirth (which can occur if the mother is breastfeeding).
Irritation of the vagina caused by tampons, toilet tissue, and contraceptives also can lead to dryness, and in some instances latex condoms can cause an allergic reaction, which can lead to a drying of the vaginal tissue. Smoking can also cause vaginal dryness.
For some women, dryness is experienced as decreased vaginal secretions prior to intercourse. However, in this case the cause is more often related to a man’s inability to fully arouse the woman sufficiently during foreplay, which normally results in natural self-lubrication of the vagina, or from his unwillingness to wait for his partner’s full arousal prior to intercourse.
What If You Do Nothing?
Repeated vaginal dryness is likely to continue until you pinpoint the cause of the problem and resolve it either with the home remedies suggested here or after having it diagnosed and treated by a physician.
Home Remedies for Vaginal Dryness
- Slow down and savor the moment. If dryness is caused by rushed lovemaking, slow down and spend more time with foreplay, which can help promote vaginal secretions.
- Lubricate. If you often have pain during sexual intercourse, even with adequate foreplay, be sure to use a vaginal lubricant prior to sex. You can also have your partner use a lubricated condom.
- Apply herbs in the form of salves and oils in the affected area.
A number of over-the-counter moisturizing creams and lotions (including Astroglide, Lubrin, Replens, and K-Y Jelly) are effective in relieving vaginal dryness and accompanying discomfort. These moisturizers work immediately to relieve dryness, unlike replacement therapy (HRT); they also provide a good alternative to women who don’t want to take hormones or use hormone creams. Even if you take hormonal pills, vaginal dryness may still be a problem and these nonhormonal creams are helpful remedies.
Some vaginal moisturizers are water-soluble, and at least one (Replens) contains a new type of vaginal lubricant called polycarbophil, which is bioadhesive and binds to the surface of vaginal cells. A controlled study compared Replens (with polycarbophil) and K-Y Jelly (water-soluble) and found that both worked well, but women in the study tended to like Replens better, even though it left a residue. Another small study found that Replens worked as well to counteract dryness as a cream with estrogen. Both Astroglide and Replens are mildly acidic, which helps prevent bacterial vaginal infections.
Ordinary moisturizing lotions can also be used for vaginal dryness. But avoid petroleum-based products, which can break down condoms, foster infections, and interfere with natural lubricants.
- Avoid douching and using spermicidal foams, creams, or gels. These can adversely affect the vaginal tissue and lead to drying.
- Regular sexual activity may help. This improves blood circulation in the vagina, which helps counter dryness.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Contact your physician if the home remedies don’t relieve vaginal soreness, burning, itching, or painful intercourse.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Your doctor will perform a pelvic exam, specifically checking the health of the vaginal skin. Hormone levels of the blood may also be taken.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or topical estrogen creams may be recommended. Estrogen rings (such as Estring) are a newer option for vaginal dryness. They deliver estrogen alone or estrogen plus progestin continuously in a controlled fashion. Similar to a diaphragm in size, the ring is placed in the vagina and releases hormone(s) at low doses for 90 days. Two studies have found that women prefer the estrogen rings to the creams, but they may cause serious side effects and little is known about any long-term effects. Ask your doctor to advise you about using these products.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media