During menopause, estrogen production slows and then stops. When that happens, a number of changes -- many of them unwelcome -- happen in a woman's body. Periods become irregular and then stop. You may have hot flashes, mood swings, a deeper voice, and an increase in facial hair.
Vaginal dryness is another common symptom of menopause -- and close to one out of every three women experiences it while going through "the change." And it becomes even more common after menopause. Vaginal dryness also can occur at any age from a number of different causes. It may seem like a minor irritation. But the lack of vaginal moisture can have a huge impact on your sex life. Fortunately, several treatments are available to relieve vaginal dryness.
By Amy Engeler
At 3 a.m., with all the houses dark up and down her winding suburban street in West Warwick, Rhode Island, Jo-Ann Frey, 37, lights a candle so she can see well enough to dust her furniture. Careful not to turn on any lights or make noise that might wake up her family, she drifts from room to room with her candle and cleaning supplies, waiting until she feels sleepy enough to climb back into bed. That feeling doesn't come -- and when she hears the alarm in the bedroom go off...
Normally, the walls of the vagina stay lubricated with a thin layer of clear fluid. The hormone estrogen helps maintain that fluid and keeps the lining of the vagina healthy, thick, and elastic. During menopause, the drop in estrogen levels reduces the amount of moisture available. It also makes the vagina thinner and less elastic. This is called vaginal atrophy.
In addition to menopause, estrogen levels can drop from:
No matter what the cause, vaginal dryness can be extremely uncomfortable. It can lead to itching, burning, and painful intercourse.
How is vaginal dryness diagnosed?
Any burning, itching, or discomfort in the vaginal area warrants a call to your doctor or gynecologist. The doctor will take a health history and find out how long you've been experiencing symptoms and whether anything -- such as douching or taking medication -- seems to worsen them.
Your doctor will then do a pelvic exam, checking your vagina for any thinning or redness. The exam will help rule out other possible causes for your discomfort, including a urinary tract infection. The doctor may also do a Pap test to remove and test cells from your vaginal wall or cervix.