What Causes Vaginal Dryness?

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

A thin layer of moisture coats the walls of a woman’s vagina. This moisture provides an alkaline environment that sperm can survive in and travel in for sexual reproduction. These vaginal secretions also lubricate the vaginal wall, reducing... Read More

A thin layer of moisture coats the walls of a woman’s vagina. This moisture provides an alkaline environment that sperm can survive in and travel in for sexual reproduction. These vaginal secretions also lubricate the vaginal wall, reducing friction during sexual intercourse.

As a woman ages, changes in hormone production can cause the vaginal walls to thin. Thinner walls mean fewer cells that secrete moisture. This can lead to vaginal dryness. Hormonal changes are the most common cause of vaginal dryness, but they aren’t the only cause.

What are the effects of vaginal dryness?

Vaginal dryness can cause discomfort in the vaginal and pelvic regions. Vaginal dryness can also cause:

  • burning
  • loss of interest in sex
  • pain with sexual intercourse
  • light bleeding following intercourse
  • soreness
  • urinary tract infections that don’t go away or that reoccur
  • vaginal itching or stinging

Vaginal dryness can be a source of embarrassment. This may prevent a woman from discussing symptoms with her physician or partner, however the condition is a common occurrence that affects many women.

Causes of vaginal dryness

Falling estrogen levels are the chief cause of vaginal dryness. As a woman ages, she begins to produce less estrogen. This leads to the end of menstruation during a time called perimenopause.

However, menopause isn’t the only condition that causes a decrease in estrogen production. Other causes include:

  • breastfeeding
  • cigarette smoking
  • depression
  • excessive stress
  • immune system disorders, such as Sjogren’s syndrome
  • childbirth
  • rigorous exercise
  • some cancer treatments, such as radiation to the pelvis, hormone therapy, or chemotherapy
  • surgical removal of the ovaries

Some medications can also reduce secretions in the body. Douching may also cause dryness and irritation, as well as some creams and lotions that women apply to the vaginal area.

When to seek medical help

Vaginal dryness rarely indicates a serious medical condition. But seek help if the discomfort lasts beyond a few days or if you experience discomfort during sexual intercourse. If left untreated, vaginal dryness can cause sores or cracking in the vagina’s tissues.

If the condition is accompanied by severe vaginal bleeding, seek immediate medical attention.

During an exam, your doctor may examine the vaginal walls to look for lacerations or feel for thinning skin. They may also take a sample of vaginal discharge to test for the presence of harmful bacteria.

Additionally, hormone tests can determine if you are in perimenopause or menopause.

How is vaginal dryness treated?

There are many over-the-counter lubricants that can be applied to the vaginal area to reduce dryness and discomfort. These lubricants and moisturizing creams can also change the vagina’s pH, reducing the likelihood of getting a urinary tract infection (UTI).

Women should choose a lubricant specifically intended for vaginal use. The lubricant should be water-based. They shouldn’t contain perfumes, herbal extracts, or artificial colors. All of these can cause irritation. Lubricants such as petroleum jelly and mineral oil can damage latex condoms and diaphragms used for birth control.

In some instances, a healthcare provider will prescribe estrogen therapy in the form of a pill, cream, or ring, which release estrogen. Creams and rings release estrogen directly to the tissues. Pills are more likely to be used when you have other uncomfortable menopause symptoms, such as hot flashes.

Because many products can irritate delicate vaginal skin, it’s important to seek evaluation and treatment advice at a physician’s office if the condition persists.

How can I prevent vaginal dryness?

Refrain from using irritating products, such as douches. Avoid condoms that contain nonoyxnol-9, or N-9. They have a chemical that can cause vaginal dryness. It’s important to know that age- or reproductive-related changes to the vagina can’t be prevented.

Medically reviewed by University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine on December 7, 2016Written by Rachel Nall


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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

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