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.
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:
Sjögren's syndrome (an autoimmune disorder that attacks cells in the body that produce moisture)
Allergy and cold medications and certain antidepressants
Lack of enough foreplay before sexual intercourse
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.