Women may find increased vaginal discomfort as they go through menopause, typically around age 50. This can occur before age 40 for about 8 percent of women, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Declining levels of hormones produced by the ovaries, including estrogen, progesterone and androgens, cause ripple effects in the entire reproductive system. Your health-care provider can do a pelvic exam to help find a diagnosis and a solution.
You may experience dryness and pain during intercourse that leads to a loss of sexual interest, Medline Plus notes. The labia or external genitalia thin, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. As the walls of the vagina lose elasticity and become thinner and less rigid and the vagina becomes shorter, intercourse may lead to light bleeding or soreness and itching. You also may find that natural lubricating secretions become scant and watery.
Discomfort in the vagina is likely due to atrophic vaginitis, an inflammation due to thinning tissue and decreased lubrication. In addition to age-related decreases in hormones, other factors may lead to atrophic vaginitis. These include medications used to decrease the estrogen levels in women as part of treatment for endometriosis, breast cancer, infertility or fibroids, notes the University of Maryland. Radiation treatment to the pelvic area, severe stress, chemotherapy, depression or rigorous exercise can also play a role in low estrogen levels.
Vaginal discomfort is not confined to older women. Atrophic vaginitis may also occur in younger woman who have had their ovaries removed surgically, or after childbirth or while breastfeeding, which lower estrogen levels.
A water-soluble lubricant can help prevent painful sexual intercourse. A topical estrogen applied inside the vagina can help maintain the tissue structure. Prescription estrogen, taken as a cream, tablet, suppository or ring, can effectively treat atrophic vaginitis. Prescription brand names include Estrace, Premarin, Estring and Vagifem, notes MayoClinic.com. You can also try non-prescription lubricants designed to last several hours, Medline Plus notes.
Do not use petroleum jelly, mineral oil or other oils as lubricants, Medline Plus notes. These may increase the chance of infection. Cigarette smoking may increase your risk of vaginal discomfort and make estrogen therapy less effective, MayoClinic.com states.
Make an appointment to see your doctor if you experience vaginal discomfort that’s not relieved by vaginal moisturizers such as Replens or a water-based lubricant such as Astroglide or K-Y. Regular sexual activity, with or without a partner, will help you to maintain healthy vaginal tissues, recommends MayoClinic.com.