Vaginal dryness can be caused by a variety of factors, it isn’t always to do with age…
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Suffering from vaginal dryness? Then you might be surprised to learn that it’s not necessarily an unavoidable consequence of ageing.
Vaginal dryness is often triggered by the reductions in oestrogen that occur at menopause or peri-menopause and affects almost 1 in 2 women over the age of 45*.
However, it can strike at any age, affecting 17% of pre-menopausal women**. Despite experiencing pain during sex and, in some cases, discomfort when sitting, standing, exercising, urinating or undergoing smear tests, three quarters of women suffering vaginal dryness do so in silence. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Read on to discover some of the more surprising culprits behind vaginal dryness, and what you can do about them…
1. Cold and allergy medication
“Over-the-counter cold and allergy formulas contain antihistamines that dry out the mucous membranes in your nose, as well as your vagina,” says Dr. Alyssa Dweck, co-author of ‘V is for Vagina’. Asthma, fibroid and endometriosis medication, certain antidepressants, hormonal contraceptives and beta blockers can also cause issues, whilst chemotherapy, radiotherapy and pelvic surgery can curtail estrogen production, resulting in vaginal dryness.
The fix: Try using a vaginal moisturiser like Vagisan MoistCream. “They help retain moisture, but are designed not to irritate the delicate mucous membrane of the vagina,” explains Dr. Cynthia Rasmussen, director of vulvovaginal services at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates. They don’t contain hormones, and you can use them as often as you like.
2. Childbirth and breastfeeding
“Once your baby is born, oestrogen levels drop so that your body can start producing breast milk,” Dr. Roger Marwood, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, explains. “This can cause vaginal dryness and tenderness, and a lower libido. The longer you breastfeed, the lower your oestrogen levels.”
The fix: Take things slowly: don’t be tempted to rush into post-baby sex before you’re ready. Try to eat more foods containing natural phytoestrogens, such as soya beans, tofu and flaxseed, for a natural hormonal boost.
3. Your shower gel
Soaps, shower gels, feminine hygiene products and even lubes containing artificial dyes and fragrances can trigger allergic reactions and kill good bacteria in the vagina, causing dryness and irritation. “If nature had intended the vagina to smell like roses or lavender, it would have made the vagina smell like roses or lavender,” says Professor Ronnie Lamont, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Swimming pool chemicals can also dry out your vagina.
The fix: Switch to colour- and fragrance-free soaps and steer clear of perfumed feminine hygiene products and flavoured or ‘warming’ lubes.
Diabetes type 2 sufferers are twice as likely to experience vaginal dryness. “Poorly controlled diabetes can damage the blood vessels and nervous system, causing reduced blood flow and loss of sensation in the sexual organs,” Diabetes UK explains. “This can contribute to vaginal dryness in women and erection difficulties in men. You may experience sexual dysfunction caused by physical factors or the medication you are taking, or a combination of both.”
The fix: Regular exercise will improve circulation and blood flow. For further advice, contact the Diabetes UK Careline on 0345 123 2399.
5. Sjögren’s syndrome
Do you also suffer from dry eyes and skin, or a dry mouth? Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the cells within the body which produce fluid, including tears, saliva and vaginal lubrication. It is usually diagnosed between the ages of 40 and 60 and is more common in women than men.
The fix: If you suspect that you may be suffering from Sjögren’s syndrome, make an appointment to see your GP. Vaginal rings, pessaries and creams containing estrogen, which are available on prescription, help some sufferers.
6. Stress and anxiety
“When a woman is anxious, there is insufficient blood flow, so she will have dryness,” says Dr. Irwin Goldstein, director of Sexual Medicine at Alvarado Hospital and San Diego Sexual Medicine in California. Stress and anxiety can also affect hormone levels and throw your libido off track. Stress-related vaginal dryness can trigger a vicious cycle, since experiencing pain during sex can increase anxiety levels.
The fix: Try to spend more time on foreplay, and discuss your feelings with your partner. Applying a vaginal moisturiser like Vagisan MoistCream before sex will help to combat dryness and make you feel more relaxed.
7. Your underwear
Synthetic, tight-fitting knickers which fail to allow your vagina sufficient ‘breathing space’ can exacerbate vaginal dryness. “In general, you’re best off with full-coverage unbleached 100% cotton underwear,” says Rasmussen. Watch out for perfumes and dyes in your laundry detergent, too, which can trigger allergic reactions.
The fix: Ditch the lacy thongs and embrace those cotton granny pants.
*According to NAMS 2013 Position Statement on Vulvovaginal Atrophy. Menopause 2013; 20(9): 888-902
**Laumann EO et al. Sexual Dysfunction in the United States. Prevalence and Predictors. JAMA 1999; 281(6): 537-544