Vaginal atrophy relates to the thinning and drying of the vaginal walls. This is a rather common condition, sometimes referred to as vulvo-vaginal atrophy (VVA) or atrophic vaginitis, which affects many women, most often following the menopause.
After menopause, the cells in the vagina are most lacking in hydration and the body may fail to produce enough oestrogen. This results in the drying, thinning and inflammation of the vagina, which can understandably cause a lot of stress and discomfort.
While it can occur at any age, it is estimated that almost half of post-menopausal women experience vaginal atrophy. However, the condition is not widely discussed and as such, few seek treatment. Many women believe it is a normal consequence of menopause and resign themselves to suffering in silence.
A diagnosis can be made simply by examination of the vaginal area by a GP or gynaecologist and fortunately, several treatment options exist.
Vaginal Atrophy Symptoms
There are several symptoms associated with vaginal atrophy, ranging from moderate to severe. Some women will experience a number of these, while others may only have one or two.
- Vaginal dryness
- Redness and itching of the genitalia
- Burning sensation in the vagina
- Burning sensation when urinating
- Urgency with urination
- Urinary incontinence
- Frequent water infections, or urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- Painful intercourse; decreased lubrication during sexual activity
- Bleeding or discomfort after intercourse
- Tightening and shortening of vaginal canal
Reports have suggested that nearly half of post-menopausal women will fail to visit their doctor when experiencing vaginal atrophy, maybe through embarrassment or perhaps because they believe it to be a ‘normal’ part of the ageing process. However, nobody should have to suffer, so it is important to seek medical treatment when any of these symptoms are affecting your everyday life.
Since there is a strong link between the vaginal and urinary symptoms associated with vaginal atrophy, some experts tend to agree that a more suitable term for it is “genitourinary syndrome of menopause” (GSM), so it is useful to also be aware of this terminology when doing your research.
Causes of Vaginal Atrophy
The condition occurs as a result of the lack of oestrogen production in the body, resulting in thinner, drier and less elastic vaginal tissue. While the post-menopausal years are the most common cause of vaginal atrophy, there are actually several other triggers.
- The years leading up to menopause (perimenopause)
- Pelvic radiotherapy
- Hormonal cancer treatments
- Removal of both ovaries (surgical menopause)
- An underlying condition like diabetes or Sjogren’s syndrome, but these are less likely causes
Although vaginal atrophy is rather common, many experts suggest that regular sexual activity using lubricants if necessary, before, throughout and following the menopause can help maintain healthy vaginal tissue, thus alleviating some of the symptoms or even avoiding vaginal dryness completely.
Other risk factors that have been known to contribute towards the condition are; not having given birth vaginally, and smoking, which may also trigger an early menopause.
Not all cases of vaginal dryness need medical attention, however, it is wise to visit your GP or gynaecologist when self-help methods, such as lubricants or vaginal moisturisers, are not effective, or when symptoms are severe and therefore affecting your day-to-day life.
Several simple and effective treatment options for vaginal atrophy exist, such as hormone replacement therapy tablets, meaning you no longer need to live with this discomfort.
For those whose vaginal atrophy is severe, a new treatment option exists called the MonaLisa Touch® which involves laser therapy and is quick and pain-free.