A 2013 survey published in The Lancet found that vaginal dryness affects over 3.5m women in the UK alone, and more than half of postmenopausal women. That makes it a far more common complaint than many people realize, and what’s interesting is many people don’t even recognize the symptoms.
As a person with a vagina, you’ll have noticed secretions or discharges from puberty onwards. You will likely have been taught that this can change depending on the level of hormones or the point of the menstrual cycle you’re in.
In fact, there are glands at the neck of your womb, or cervix, that produce a natural lubricant that keeps your vagina from getting dry. The slight acidity in this discharge helps to keep everything healthy, removing dead cells and preventing infections such as thrush.
During sexual arousal, extra vaginal lubricant is produced by the Bartholin’s glands: two glands found at the entrance of the vagina. If this additional vaginal lubrication is not produced, it may impact penetrative sex, potentially leading to pain during sexual intercourse.
There are a number of reasons you might experience vaginal dryness, one of the most common being menopause. With the median age varying between 42.1 and 53 years depending on where you live in the world, menopause occurs as the ovaries stop producing eggs and vaginal estrogen levels decline. One of the early symptoms of menopause seen in approximately half of postmenopausal women, is reduced lubrication during sexual activity.
Hormonal changes don’t just occur during and after menopause. Vaginal dryness can be a common problem pre-menopause where levels of the hormone estrogen have been affected. This could be due to breastfeeding, having had a hysterectomy, taking oral contraceptives or cancer treatments such as chemotherapy.
And there are plenty of non-hormonal reasons for vaginal dryness, too. For example, dryness is linked to hygiene products like harsh soaps or feminine sprays, chemicals found in swimming pools or hot tubs, and even some washing powders. These can all dry out the mucous membranes and vaginal tissues.
Finally, lack of arousal accounts for vaginal dryness in many pre-menopause cases. This might be caused by anxiety, stress or any one of a number of conditions such as Female Sexual Interest / Arousal Disorder (FSIAD) or Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD).
The drop in hormone levels associated with vaginal dryness can lead to a number of vaginal symptoms. Thinning of the vaginal lining, alongside the lack of vaginal lubrication, can mean that damage is more likely to occur during penetration. This might cause vaginal bleeding as well as pain during sex or while masturbating.
In some cases, vaginal dryness can cause pain outside of sex, potentially reducing quality of life whether you’re sexually active or not. It may be that you experience a burning sensation when urinating as well as discomfort when sitting or standing.
Vaginal discharge can become watery, smelly, or a different color to normal. Many women even notice changes in the appearance of their vagina and vulva, the lips, for instance can become much thinner.
Of course, many of these symptoms could be an indicator of other conditions such as a yeast infection, urinary tract infection or vaginal atrophy, for example. It’s important if you are at all concerned you speak to your healthcare provider.
It should come as no surprise that vaginal dryness can come with an emotional toll. The expectation of painful intercourse can lead to anxieties around sex and a reduction in sexual desire.
Many women report feeling different and losing confidence thanks to the changes happening within their body. You may find yourself concerned about symptoms or embarrassed to talk to your partner about the issue itself or the reasons you’re not finding sex so enjoyable.
Unfortunately, arousal difficulties such as this can lead to relationship issues if left unchecked. If one partner feels self-conscious and withdraws from intimacy in some way, this can leave their partner feeling self-conscious about why it’s happening. This can make for a less enjoyable sex life for both participants, leading to anxiety about sex in general and a vicious cycle of sexual difficulties.
Thankfully, vaginal dryness does not need to be a permanent problem. There are many treatment options aimed at relieving the associated physical symptoms. These can often lead to an improvement in overall vaginal health, increasing sexual desire and arousal.
The best solution will depend on why the problem has occurred and if you are concerned it is always worth talking to your GP or healthcare provider.
In menopausal women, or if it’s hormonal levels that are causing the issue, you may be prescribed topical estrogen therapy or Hormone Replacement Therapy such as estrogen cream, gel, patches or medicines to increase levels of estrogen. If you’d like to try something first however, you could try increasing lubrication either naturally or artificially.
Start by taking additional time and increasing the amount of foreplay you engage in before intercourse. This should help you feel more aroused and also give the Bartholin’s gland time to secrete the maximum amount of lubrication.
Synthetic lubricants will work in the same way as this natural lubricant to keep the vagina moist, reducing the friction caused by intercourse. To reduce the likelihood of irritation or other side effects, apply a water-based lubricant (as opposed to oil-based lubricants) before sexual intercourse takes place. It doesn’t make much difference whether you put this around your vagina and vulva or apply it to your partner’s penis or sex toy.
Make sure to avoid perfumed soaps or washes, as well as other products such as mineral oil or petroleum jelly in order that you don’t exacerbate the problem.
Lubricants can work for many people; however, if there’s an underlying issue with arousal or sexual anxiety, it’s vital you address that rather than just covering the symptoms.
At Blueheart we offer a sex therapy technique called Sensate Focus. This involves a series of touch exercises designed to reduce the pressure of sex and help you to explore and enjoy your own and your partner’s bodies without focusing on intercourse. This can help with relaxation and anxiety reduction putting in place the foundations of a healthy sexual relationship.
When you feel ready, give it a go. Take our assessment so we can put together a plan for you in the app.