What is vaginal dryness?
At some point in their lives, many women will experience vaginal dryness. Unsurprisingly, there are many who won’t discuss ‘dryness or itch down there’ but will have experienced it.
Signs of vaginal dryness include soreness, an itchy or burning sensation of the vagina, and pain or discomfort during sex. Some may experience light bleeding or mild vaginal discharge. Dryness isn’t always just inside the vaginal canal, the vulva (the external female genital area) may also feel itchy, dry, or irritated.
What can cause vaginal dryness?
There are two main causes of vaginal dryness.
1. Decreasing levels of oestrogen
Oestrogen is a hormone that helps lubricate the vaginal tissues. As women enter into menopause or perimenopause, they produce less oestrogen, and so vaginal dryness can commonly occur. Other factors can cause a decrease in oestrogen such as giving birth, breastfeeding, smoking, cancer treatments, eating disorders, excessive exercise, ovarian surgery, and stress.
2. Disruption of the natural chemical balance in the vagina
Perfumed soaps, creams, deodorants, washes, and douches can disrupt the natural balance of chemicals in the vagina, causing dryness.
Other causes include:
Medications such as certain antidepressant medications, hormonal medications and other allergy and cold medications.
Sjögren syndrome, an autoimmune condition that can cause a dry mouth and eyes, also can cause vaginal dryness.
What are the traditional treatment options for vaginal dryness?
1. Over the counter lubricants and treatments
There are many over-the-counter lubricants and vaginal moisturisers that can be applied to the vaginal area to reduce dryness and discomfort. A lubricant that is designed for vaginal usage is advised. It is best if the lubricant is water-based. They shouldn't contain artificial colours, herbal extracts, or fragrances as these may cause irritation. A local pharmacy will be able to advise on suitable options.
2. Prescribed medication
A doctor can prescribe oestrogen-based creams, tablets, or pessaries to boost oestrogen in the vagina, but not in the rest of the body. These are low-risk options, suitable for many women who have gone through menopause. There are also other options such as creams which act as hormone precursors that convert to oestrogen in the body. Non-hormonal pills are also available; they can thicken vaginal tissue thus increasing lubrication.
3. Vaginal rejuvenation procedures
Vaginal rejuvenation might be an option if you're searching for a therapy that doesn't include pills or creams. These procedures encourage the creation of new tissue in your vaginal wall using lasers or radiofrequency radiation. The first step is to talk with your GP about suitable options for you.
Don't be embarrassed, talk about vaginal dryness with your doctor or pharmacist
Vaginal dryness can really affect the quality of a woman’s life. It is a common issue, and reluctance to discuss it can mean you continue to suffer in silence, when there are a range of simple treatment and management options available. It is important to talk about vaginal dryness - embarrassment should not prevent you from receiving care that will improve the quality of your life.
This content has been reviewed by Dr. Alex O’Brien, General Practitioner in Women’s Health at our Centre for Women's Health in Cork.