For many women, vaginal dryness is an uncomfortable or painful part of their lives. If you’re one of them, you might notice symptoms such as pain or irritation when you have sex or urinary problems such as burning or itching. If you had symptoms like these in any other part of your body, you probably wouldn’t hesitate to talk to your doctor. But you might be uncomfortable bringing up symptoms you notice “down there.”
McKenna Li, DO, an OBGYN with Banner Health Center in Ft. Collins, CO, encourages you to speak up. She said, “Vaginal dryness is a common complaint that many women do not feel comfortable talking about with their provider or think can be treated. Sexual and vaginal health is a part of health care!”
Dr. Li answered our questions about what causes vaginal dryness and the pros and cons of different ways to treat it.
What causes vaginal dryness?
A lot of different factors could be causing vaginal dryness. “By far, menopause is the number one cause,” Dr. Li said. That’s because estrogen helps keep your vaginal walls well-lubricated, so when your estrogen levels drop during menopause you lose this natural lubrication.
If menopause isn’t the reason for your vaginal dryness, it might be caused by infection, medication, stress, depression or certain immune system disorders.
How can you prevent vaginal dryness?
You can’t always prevent it. Sometimes, treatment is the only option. But good vaginal hygiene can help. Don’t wash inside your vagina, douche or steam—your vagina cleans itself naturally. And after you pee, wipe from front to back so you don’t spread germs to your vagina. When you’re having sex, spending more time on foreplay before penetration can give your vagina time for lubrication.
How can you treat vaginal dryness?
There are lots of different treatment options you can try. Here are some pros and cons of the top options.
- Moisturizers. Vaginal moisturizers are similar to facial or body moisturizers—you can apply them regularly to combat dryness.
- Pro: You can buy them over the counter, and they are easy to use.
- Con: You need to apply them regularly.
- Lubricants. You can use a lubricant right before sex to improve comfort. Water-based lubricants have minimal ingredients, while silicone-based lubricants tend to last longer. You might see oil-based products like petroleum jelly touted as vaginal lubricants, but they aren’t FDA approved for this purpose.
- Pro: Like vaginal moisturizers, you can buy them over the counter, and they are easy to use.
- Con: They can be messy.
- Prescription medications. If moisturizers and lubricants aren’t working well for you, you can talk to your doctor about prescription options. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a cream that you apply to your vagina that converts to estrogen, is one option. You can also try estrogen-based products such as rings, tablets or creams that you place in your vagina. Or you can take ospemifene, a nonhormonal pill that can thicken the tissue in your vagina.
- Pro: You often get good results, and you may be able to taper to a lower dose or frequency.
- Con: You need to see a doctor for a prescription, the medication could be expensive and side effects are possible.
And what about rejuvenation procedures you might have heard about? Dr. Li said these procedures aren’t recommended for vaginal dryness. People typically choose them for loose vaginal tissue, wrinkles and skin discoloration. They aren’t FDA approved and aren’t covered by insurance, so they can be expensive.
How can women get the help they need?
“Vaginal dryness is treatable and not something you have to live with,” Dr. Li said. You can schedule a visit with your doctor to discuss your options or bring it up when you have an annual exam or well-woman visit . If your provider doesn’t ask about menopausal symptoms, vaginal issues or sexual intimacy you can mention your concerns. “Most providers are happy to discuss this and either treat it or refer you to a gynecologist who can help,” she said.
The bottom line
Vaginal dryness is a common problem for women, especially after menopause. But you don’t have to suffer with irritation or pain. Treatment options can help lubricate your vagina, so you can feel good again. To connect with an OBGYN who can help diagnose and treat vaginal dryness, visit bannerhealth.com.