Keep Your Vagina Healthy: How to Stop Vaginal Dryness

Painful sex isn't the only side effect of vaginal dryness, a common problem as estrogen levels drop with age: It can cause other discomforts, including a persistent foul odor, burning irritation and watery discharge. We spoke with ob/gyn Lauren Streicher, M.D., assistant clinical professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine and a member of LHJ Medical Advisory Board, to find out more about the problem and how to fix it.
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LHJ: So vaginal dryness is directly linked to decreasing estrogen?

LS: Exactly. As estrogen levels go down, the production of the clear fluids that provide natural lubrication start to diminish. The pH of the vagina rises too, which creates a more alkaline environment in which bad bacteria are more likely to thrive. This is what causes common symptoms like a foul odor, irritation and an abnormal, watery discharge.

LHJ: Aren't these the same symptoms as a vaginal yeast infection?

LS: They're similar, so it's no surprise that many women run to the drugstore to try an over-the-counter yeast infection medication. This can feel soothing for a very short time, but inevitably the symptoms return. Interestingly, a lot of women will describe what they're feeling as "itching" but when you really ask for details, it turns out they're not experiencing itching so much as burning and irritation, often inside and outside the vagina.

LHJ: Does the problem have a name?

LS: It's called atrophic vaginitis, but it's not an infection. And it is totally reversible. To repair the problem, a woman can use one of three different types of vaginal estrogen. All work equally well to revitalize the vaginal walls and rev up lubrication -- in many cases, you can stop treatment altogether after a few months once your symptoms are resolved.

LHJ: Are we talking about a form of hormone replacement?

LS: Essentially, yes, but with vaginal estrogen there's minimal absorption into the bloodstream. These products are considered safe even for breast cancer survivors. (And you don't need progesterone with this as you would for birth control or hormone therapy if you haven't had a hysterectomy.)

Continued on page 2:  Treatment Choices

 

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