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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.