Recognizing vaginal atrophy
Vaginal atrophy is better known as genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM). It occurs due to the decrease in estrogen levels in the body. Because of this, postmenopausal women are particularly prone to developing this condition.
You may have GSM if you experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- vaginal dryness, burning, or itching
- excess discharge
- vaginal itching
- burning or urgency with urination
- increased urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- discomfort, dryness, or light bleeding with intercourse
- shortening and tightening of the vaginal canal
Some experts estimate that about half of all postmenopausal women experience vaginal atrophy. Few women seek treatment, though, which makes getting accurate statistics difficult.
If GSM affects you, you have a few treatment options you can try at home. If your symptoms persist or worsen, you should consult your doctor.
Natural remedies for vaginal atrophy
GSM generally responds well to relatively simple treatments. A number of natural or home-based remedies are available to ease your discomfort and bring you back to feeling like your normal self.
Herbs and supplements
Researchers in a 2014 study examined sea buckthorn oil as a possible alternative to traditional estrogen therapy. This oil is rich in essential fatty acids. Participants who took the sea buckthorn oil saw improvement in vaginal elasticity and tissue integrity. Toward the end of the study, some participants noted increased joint pain and stomach issues. It’s unclear whether this was related to the oil or the result of other factors.
Other vitamins and supplements that may help include:
- vitamin E
- vitamin A
- beta carotene
- B vitamins
- omega-3 fatty acids
Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight and body mass index may also help with GSM. Losing weight too quickly can backfire, though, so stick with slow and steady losses.
You may consider adding foods that contain plant estrogens, or phytoestrogens, such as soybeans, soy products, or flaxseed. A recent study shows a reduction in vaginal dryness with the use of plant estrogens. You should also drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and try to limit caffeine and alcohol.
Engaging in a regular exercise routine may promote blood flow and balance hormone levels. Try walking 30 minutes per day, five days per week to start. Talk to your doctor about an exercise program that would be appropriate for you. As with weight loss, too much exercise can contribute to worsening vaginal dryness. Moderation is key here.
Personal care products
Avoid using any douches or other hygiene products that contain fragrances or other chemicals. These products may irritate or dry out the vagina and make your symptoms worse. Try to choose personal care items that are pH-balanced.
Traditional treatments for vaginal atrophy
Your doctor may suggest that you try vaginal estrogen therapy for your GSM. This type of treatment is applied to the vaginal area via tablet, ring, or cream form. Because it’s applied directly to the vagina, there’s less chance that excess estrogen will reach other parts of the body, such as the breasts, where the hormone could do damage.
Vaginal estrogen therapy can alleviate dryness, irritation, and painful intercourse. It may even relieve other symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes, night sweats, and sleep disturbances. Women undergoing this therapy typically see results after four to six weeks.
Oral estrogen is another option, but taking the hormone orally means it can reach all parts of the body. Your doctor can explain the benefits and risks of this type of treatment.
When to see your doctor
If your symptoms persist, consult your doctor. Make an appointment with your doctor today if you’ve been experiencing unusual vaginal symptoms such as bleeding, excess discharge, or pain during intercourse.
You may also want to talk to your doctor if you’ve had other conditions or procedures that decrease the body’s estrogen production. This includes:
- surgical removal of both ovaries
- radiation therapy for cancer
- chemotherapy for cancer
- breast cancer hormonal treatments
If you don’t get treatment for it, GSM can lead to complications. You may experience vaginal infections, or vaginitis, due to changes in the acid balance of your vagina. You may also see an increase in urinary issues, such as UTIs or incontinence. This may increase the frequency and urgency to urinate or make urination painful. Your doctor will likely perform a pelvic exam, collect a sample of urine, and test the acidity of your vagina to make a diagnosis.
You may be able to manage your GSM at home by making some simple lifestyle changes. A few clinical trials back alternative medicines or supplements for vaginal atrophy. Always speak with your doctor before taking anything on your own for your condition. Some of these treatments may interact with certain medications. Otherwise, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your doctor to discuss other available treatment options if your symptoms worsen.
How to prevent vaginal atrophy
Engaging in regular sexual activity may be one of the best defenses against GSM. Having sex with or without a partner helps to increase blood flow to your vagina, keeping the tissues healthy.
You can also try using over-the-counter (OTC) moisturizers, such as Replens or Vagisil, to moisturize your vagina. OTC lubricants, such as glycerin-free Astroglide or K-Y Jelly, may ease symptoms during intercourse. Taking the time to become aroused before intercourse may eliminate dryness and burning by providing you with more of your body’s natural lubrication.
If you smoke, talk to your doctor about stopping. Smoking is a risk factor for developing vaginal atrophy.