Menopause Infographic – Dry Vagina

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Let’s face it, love can hurt. And I’m not talking about the he-left-me-for-a-younger-model-and-broke-my-heart kind of hurt. I’m talking about the physical pain that can be associated with intercourse during menopause.

There’s actually a medical term for painful intercourse: dyspareunia (really??) If you’re experiencing pain during sex, you could be suffering from vaginal atrophy or VA (I used to think VA stood for Virginia, which ironically, is for lovers.). VA is also known as vulvovaginal atrophy or VVA. The latest appellation, courtesy of the North American Menopause Society (NAMS), is genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM), a blanket term to describe menopausal symptoms that occur to the vulva, vagina, and lower urinary tract as a result of estrogen deficiency. Who makes up these words? Once again, the vagina gets the short end of the stick! I can’t even pronounce “genitourinary”! Perhaps NAMS should call in the Opi Nail Color Labeling Committee?

Anyway, vaginal atrophy is just that: a thinning of the vaginal wall thanks to a drop in levels of estrogen, whose job it is to maintain the structure and function of the vaginal wall, elasticity of the tissues around the vagina, and production of vaginal fluid.

We seem to hear more about hot flashes, insomnia, and memory loss, but vaginal discomfort is every bit as difficult—and critical—to deal with as other menopausal symptoms. Vaginal symptoms can negatively impact not only on your relationships and sexuality, but your quality of life and self-image.

In my experience, most women don’t even know what VA is, nor understand that it is a chronic problem that requires ongoing treatment and IS treatable.

What are the symptoms of VA?

  • Vaginal dryness
  • Vaginal burning
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Genital itching
  • Burning with urination
  • Urgency with urination
  • More urinary tract infections
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Light bleeding after intercourse
  • Discomfort with intercourse
  • Decreased vaginal lubrication during sexual activity
  • Shortening and tightening of the vaginal canal

Vaginal dryness affects as many as 75 percent of postmenopausal women. Between 17 and 45 percent of postmenopausal women say they find sex painful, according to The North American Menopause Society (NAMS). According to the Women’s Health Concern, only 25 percent of these women seek treatment. What may be even more disconcerting is that, according to the International Menopause Society, 70 percent of women say their healthcare providers rarely or never raise the subject with them.

The Closer survey found that vaginal discomfort caused 58 percent of the women surveyed to avoid intimacy and 64 percent to experience a loss of libido.

The NAMS notes that pain during sex (or simply the fear of pain during sex) can trigger performance anxiety or arousal problems in some women. This also can diminish lubrication or cause involuntary—and painful—tightening of the vaginal muscles, called vaginismus. (Another one of these ridiculous words! Where is Merriam Webster when we need her?) It’s a vicious vaginal cycle.
Here are some solutions:

Pelvic Floor Therapy

According to Harvard Medical School, this is a safe and effective technique. A physical therapist uses massage and gentle pressure to relax and stretch tightened tissues in the pelvic area. You also learn exercises to help strengthen your pelvic floor muscles, which may have been weakened by aging, childbirth or hormonal changes. Now that’s a massage with a happy ending!

Personal Lubricant or Moisturizer 

Both can go a long way in the bedroom. However, your vagina may need more. Non-hormonal vaginal lubricants can help decrease friction and discomfort during intercourse. Be sure that they are water-based and designed for vaginal use. Petroleum-based lubricants can harbor bacteria in the vagina and lead to infection, as well damage latex condoms. Vaginal moisturizers, similar to facial moisturizers can help relieve dryness and rebalance the acidity of the vagina, and most women find these helpful to use every day. Both lubricants and moisturizers provide temporary relief of symptoms but often do not treat the underlying condition of vaginal atrophy.

Time for a lube job? Here are the three basic categories of lube:

Water Based lubes can contain a number of plant based ingredients (in addition to water), such as aloe (aloe barbadensis), guar gum (Cyamopsis tetragonolobus), flax seed extract (Linum usitatissimum), and locust bean gum (Ceratonia siliqua).  They are often combined with preservatives—some natural, such as tocopherols (vitamin E) and citric acid, and in other cases synthetic preservatives, such as potassium sorbate, parabens and propylene glycol.  They can also contain glycerin, xylitol and phenoxyethanol.  They tend to dry out much faster than oil or silicone based lubes and can become tacky (heaven knows, we don’t want to wear anything tacky) and sticky. However, they clean up easily, do not stain the bed sheets, and get along just fine with latex condoms and toys. Some newer lubricants contain carrageenan (a seaweed product), which minimizes the tackiness or stickiness associated with water based lubes.

Oil Based lubricants, which cannot be used with latex condoms or latex toys, can be either pure natural oils, a mix of natural and petrochemical oil, or pure petrochemical oil.  If condoms are required, either Polyurethane or Polyisprene condoms can be used. As natural oils, some people use Organic 100% Sweet Almond Oil (this contains oleic and linoleic essential fatty acids, which helps your muscles relax) or Organic 100% Virgin Coconut Oil (this can help prevent yeast and bladder infections) as a lubricant.  These oils will not burn or inflame the vagina or the penis.

Silicone Based lubricants are, you guessed it, silicone based. Dimethicone (Polydimethysiloxane or PDMS) is the form of silicone used in the better silicone lubricants. It does not dry out as some water based lubricants do, has a thick lush feeling, and is generally considered to be non-toxic and non-irritating (this, of course, can depend on the individual user).  It does cause damage to silicone toys, is difficult to wash off, and can stain bed sheets.

Test all the lubricants on your skin first for potential irritation. Try the inside of your elbow or another spot where the skin is delicate.

I conducted an informal survey among my readers to see which lubes/moisturizers are most popular. Here are their top choices:

If you are all lubed up and still have no relief, see your menopause specialist to see about medical interventions that can help. You do not need to suffer. Talk to your specialist about the various hormone treatment options available. There are two types:

Local Estrogen Therapy (LET) is estrogen applied directly to vaginal tissues, so it goes directly to the affected area with minimal absorption of estrogen into the bloodstream. LET is available in creams, a ring (def not jeweled) and a tablet.

Systemic Hormone Therapy allows estrogen to circulate throughout the bloodstream to all parts of the body. It’s available in many forms: a pill, injection, patch, gel and spray. Systemic HT is most often prescribed for multiple whole-body symptoms of menopause, including night sweats, hot flashes, and others. Some women need a combination of treatments.

The 2016 Revised Global Consensus Statement on Menopausal Hormone Therapy (MHT) which was published in Climacteric June 2016 reports that low-dose vaginal estrogen therapy is recommended for symptomatic women whose symptoms are limited to vaginal dryness or associated discomfort with intercourse. The use of systemic hormone therapy (see below) is not generally recommended in breast cancer survivors, although low-dose vaginal estrogen can be considered with consultation with oncology.

In addition, a new drug was approved by the FDA for painful sex — called Intrarosa.  It’s active ingredient is DHEA. This is, also, vaginally administered.

Another option is Osphenia which is a SERM Selective Estrogen Receptor Modulator.

Above all, communicate with your partner. Honesty is definitely the best policy. If you’re avoiding sex due to pain, your partner could misinterpret it as your dissatisfaction with the relationship (or the sex). Remember the guy who called into the radio show about the collapse of his marriage over this very issue? Ask your partner to join you at the doctor visit so he or she can be part of the solution. If sex is a vital part of your relationship—it takes two, as they say—then make this part of your journey a partnership, too.

Click here to download my free eBook, MENOPAUSE MONDAYS: The Girlfriend’s Guide to Surviving and Thriving During Perimenopause and Menopause

After struggling with her own severe menopause symptoms and doing years of research, Ellen resolved to share what she learned from experts and her own trial and error. Her goal was to replace the confusion, embarrassment, and symptoms millions of women go through–before, during, and after menopause–with the medically sound solutions she discovered. Her passion to become a “sister” and confidant to all women fueled Ellen’s first book, Shmirshky: the pursuit of hormone happiness. As a result of the overwhelming response from her burgeoning audiences and followers’ requests for empowering information they could trust, Ellen’s weekly blog, Menopause MondaysTM, was born.

  • Kathy

    Something you didn’t mention that I’m having a problem with is burning in my vagina after my husband ejaculates. Intercourse is painful even with using a lubricant so we take it slow. The bigger issue is the burning that occurs after and I’m not sure why it’s happening.

    • Ellen Dolgen

      Kathy, I would definitely circle back with your Menopause Specialist about that. If you are still experiencing painful intercourse even with a lubricant, you need to be checked for dry vagina. This is very important, because left untreated it can cause other issues such as shortening and tightening of the vaginal canal. Speak to your doctor about LET (local estrogen therapy). This is delivered directly into the vagina and it usually works like a dream – and very quickly! Good Luck and keep me posted!

  • Sue

    I used to use Albolene (and do think it’s good), but I just switched to Coconut Oil and find it works better–and I like the fact that it helps prevent bladder infections. Do you or your followers have any additional information on the pros/cons of these two? Thanks!

    • Debra

      Hi Sue thanks for the information, I use coconut oil for so many things, never thought about using it for V.D. thanks again for sharing..

      Debra 🙂

      • Ellen Dolgen

        Debra, I mention in the blog as well….because many women such as Sue have lmk that it has helped them. Good Luck!

    • Ellen Dolgen

      I don’t have any more info for you on the pros and cons of Albolene vs Coconut Oil. I just have had many women tell me it helps them.

  • CB

    With such a high percentage of women experiencing these problems, you’d think by now we’d have our “little pink pill” to help us out! Meanwhile, how many years now have men been able to take Viagra, Cialis, etc. so that they can still “get and maintain a healthy erection”?? Great, just what I need while I’m dealing with my hot flashes, lack of libido & other VA issues…a husband who’s 8 years older than me and tells me he still wants to have sex all the time.

    • Ellen Dolgen

      I know what you mean CB. However, the good news is that you CAN get help for these issues! Download my free eBook, MENOPAUSE MONDAYS: The Girlfriend’s Guide to Surviving and Thriving During Perimenopause and Menopause and go to Chapter 13 to help you find a good Menopause Specialist! Also, read Chapter 4 – on Hot Flashes for some options to talk to your Menopause Specialist about. BTW you can look at the Health News Flash that I had which talked about the “pink pill” for women. Since then the FDA advisory committee voted 18-6 to recommend that the agency approve the drug flibanserin (Pink Pill for women) for the treatment of hypoactive sexual desire disorder in premenopausal women.

  • Debra

    Hello Ellen, I can’t thank you enough for being so brave and sharing your own personal struggles with menopause, so much so that it has helped so many of us not feel like we are not in it alone, or that we are crazy. It is a real physical, and temporary change in our lives. I do have a question though, with all the research going forward, has anyone thought about doing research for the use of medical marijuana for menopause? If it can help those with cancer, and seizures, could it not help some of the sisters with anxiety? This question was raised to me, so I became curious myself, and wanted to ask you.

    thanks so much!!!

    • Ellen Dolgen

      Debra, great question. To my knowledge there has been no special research done for menopausal women in the benefits of marijuana. If I ever hear about it, I will let you know!

      • Debra

        Hi Ellen, thanks, I’ll keep check.:)

        • Ellen Dolgen

          Keep us posted if you hear of a study.

  • Dr Jayson Oates

    Ellen,
    Great explanation of dyspareunia and its management. If a woman has tried all of those and is not happy then the next thing to look at is MonaLisa Touch laser treatment. It is not a scary as it sounds (and is not giving you a designer anything).

    • Ellen Dolgen

      Yes, Dr. Oates, the MonaLisaTouch laser is a new treatment for the U.S. The criteria for device clearance here is much less stringent than for drug approval and the clearance for the device was not specifically indicated for treatment of VVA (vulvovaginal atrophy). In the published trials, only several hundred women have been studied and most of the studies are only 12 weeks in duration. I think this treatment might hold promise for the future of VVA treatment, it would be helpful to have some more long term data on it. For example, such as what are the long term risks of scarring?

  • Donna

    A new and innovative solution is the Mona Lisa Touch. A laser treatment done three times with 6 week intervals in between. Average cost is 1500$ for all three treatments. I just received my second and there is enough moisture to float a boat and the pain during intercourse has disappeared all together. I am very pleased with the results so far. No pain at all and the downtime for sex is a week. Since I cannot use hormones due to familial breast cancer and am high risk, this was a fast, easy, and reasonable alternative! I highly recommend it 🙂

    • Ellen Dolgen

      Hi Donna, thanks for sharing your success with the Mona Lisa Touch laser. As I mentioned previously, on Dr. Oates’ comment….this new treatment may have great promise for many women. We shall all watch and see what the long term data is.

  • Sue

    I just heard about this laser treatment that “cures” vaginal dryness and painful intercourse due to menopause. Here is a link for more information. It kind of sounds too good to be true, but does anyone know anything about it? Here’s the link: http://www.vibrantnation.com/groups/love-sex/blog/game-changer-treatment-for-painful-sex-provides-women-with-an-almost-immediate-improvement-in-vaginal-moisture-retention-pain-pressure/

    • Ellen Dolgen

      Hi Sue, I am familiar with this new laser treatment in the U.S. The criteria for device clearance here is much less stringent than for drug approval and the clearance for the device was not specifically indicated for treatment of VVA (vulvovaginal atrophy). In the published trials, only several hundred women have been studied and most of the studies are only 12 weeks in duration. I think this treatment might hold promise for the future of VVA treatment, it would be helpful to have some more long term data on it. For example, such as what are the long term risks of scarring?

  • Well, I’m only 55, but I haven’t lasered my face either, yet. I have done chemical peels…but have not been brave enough to do a really serious one. Laser the vagina? Hm. I’ll have to research that one.

    • You are braver than me! I haven’t done a peel yet, either. I try to make sure that everyone knows about ALL the options available for dry vag. This is a new one! LET (local estrogen therapy) has been around for awhile.

  • Shannon Perry

    Are you familiar with the Elvie? It’s a smart device that women can use to (this is going to sound odd, but stick with me here) make pelvic floor exercises fun. It’s an inter-vaginal device that talks to your phone via Bluetooth to give you challenges and tell you if you’re performing the exercises correctly. Incentive to actually do the exercises, which frankly, I just don’t do. Like stretching. We interviewed the CEO of the company about the device — very cool. Elvie.com.

    • Thanks for sharing! I will have to check this out.