What is Vaginal Atrophy?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Vaginal atrophy is a series of natural changes which take place in the vagina as women age and their estrogen levels decrease. With women living much longer than they did in previous eras, vaginal atrophy has become a major concern in the women's health community. In addition to being a quality of life issue, this condition can also lead to complications in the urinary tract, some of which can become quite serious if they are not addressed.

Vaginal atrophy may make intercourse an unpleasant experience.
Vaginal atrophy may make intercourse an unpleasant experience.

Atrophic vaginitis, as it is also known, sets in around the time of menopause. As estrogen production declines, the tissues in the vagina become dry, thin, and shrunken. This can cause aches and pains, and it tends to make intercourse unpleasant because suitable lubrication is not available. This can cause a decline in sex drive, which can be a concern for women and their partners. The atrophy can also spread to the urinary tract, leading to difficulty urinating, bloody urine, and other problems.

Changes that occur in the vagina as women age are referred to as vaginal atrophy.
Changes that occur in the vagina as women age are referred to as vaginal atrophy.

Some women are too shy to discuss the symptoms they experience with care providers, making it important for doctors to be proactive about addressing vaginal atrophy. The condition can usually be diagnosed with a patient interview and a physical exam which will reveal obvious and significant changes in the vagina.

A gynecologist helps women lead healthy lives through regular check-ups and preventative care.
A gynecologist helps women lead healthy lives through regular check-ups and preventative care.

Several approaches can be used to treat this condition. In some cases, women can use water-based lubricants and moisturizers to keep the tissues of the vagina moist and flexible, and to make sexual intercourse more comfortable. If these measures are not sufficient, replacement estrogen can be provided. The hormone replacement can prevent many of the changes associated with vaginal atrophy, and it can also reverse some damages if it is taken at an appropriate time.

Gynecologists can be consulted on how to best treat vaginal atrophy.
Gynecologists can be consulted on how to best treat vaginal atrophy.

Women should not be ashamed to discuss issues like vaginal dryness with their care providers. In addition to being quality of life problems, these issues can also be symptoms of an underlying condition which can and should be addressed. By remaining silent, women may do themselves a disservice and receive delayed or inadequate treatment.

Vaginal atrophy can spread to the urinary tract, leading to difficulty urinating and bloody urine.
Vaginal atrophy can spread to the urinary tract, leading to difficulty urinating and bloody urine.

A gynecologist can usually provide treatment for this condition, sometimes in consultation with an endocrinologist who specializes in medical problems which pertain to the hormones. The doctor may recommend hormone testing to determine a woman's hormone levels, using the results to find an appropriate dosage of estrogen which will address the condition without exposing the woman to the risk of extreme side effects.

Vaginal atrophy may be a symptom at the onset of menopause.
Vaginal atrophy may be a symptom at the onset of menopause.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon993911

If you search for "radio frequency" treatment for vaginal atrophy there is a possible solution unfortunately not covered by insurance on the other hand risk free and a possible solution.

anon992356

I am a healthy 65 year old married woman with a wonderful husband and I feel like I am missing out on out great sex life due to vaginal pain and dryness! I hate this! I am beginning to shy away from sex and feel so limited in bed, but I am determined to make it work and am going to try everything I can find till I am my old happy sexy self again! Wish me luck!

anon992311

Vaginal atrophy is awful. I have just got my diagnosis after two years of symptoms and problems, I am 43 and am no way near the menopause.

I have been actively doing IVF for the past five years and this condition was the last thing I thought I would get. It was caused by shutting down my ovaries during IVF and also by the hormone progesterone. I am starting treatment with estrogen cream for three months and then surgery to fix my fused labia minora, which fused together and are partially covering my vaginal opening.

My doc is confident all will be OK, as I am young and still producing estrogen. I never even heard of it, so it's not just menopause that causes this condition.

anon360201

It makes pap smears very painful. You almost want to jump up off the table!

anon271724

My wife has vaginal atrophy and will not take hormones to remedy the pain she experiences during intercourse, and I can't blame her due to the health risks. And lubricants have not worked. Therefore, can vaginal atrophy be cured by a surgical procedure that would reline the vaginal walls so that intercourse would no longer be painful?

JessicaLynn

@Azuza - Yeah, vaginal atrophy sounds far from pleasant. I think the effects it can have on the urinary tract sounds pretty unpleasant too. However, it sounds like if you treat this when it appears, the symptoms won't spread to the urinary tract.

That's one big reason why women shouldn't be scared to talk to their doctor about this! It sounds like it can become a semi-serious medical problem.

Anyway, I'm not at that age yet. However, I'm glad I read this article. That way when I get older, if I start showing any of these symptoms I'll take myself to the doctor immediately!

Azuza

OK, as if getting old wasn't bad enough, I might have to deal with postmenopausal vaginal atrophy when I get older?! First of all, the term itself is seriously disturbing. Calling it vaginal atrophy makes it sound like the vagina is going to waste away into nothingness and disappears or something. And the actual symptoms don't sound too great either.

It also really stinks that hormone replacement therapy is the treatment for this. I know they've made a lot of discoveries in recent years about how hormone replacement therapy can cause a lot of other problems.

dfoster85

If vaginal atrophy symptoms are your worst complaint, you might want to consider vaginal estrogen suppositories rather than taking a pill or injection.

The vaginal application means that it goes right where you need it, but it doesn't enter your blood stream in great amounts. That way, you can avoid a lot of the side effects of full-on HRT (hormone replacement therapy).

An aunt of mine who is an older single lady with an "active social life" was telling me all about it after her third glass of wine!

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