The inside of the vagina is lined by a mucosal wall coated in moisture, which is crucial to reduce friction during sexual intercourse and provide an alkaline environment for sperm to survive. This alkaline environment is delicate and anything that disturbs the pH balance can lead to an increased risk of infection.
There are a number of factors that can lead to this usually moist area becoming dry. Ageing leads to reduced hormone production and is the most common reason why the vaginal walls become thinner and moisture levels decrease.
There are, however, other factors besides ageing and menopause that can lead to vaginal dryness. While this may an embarrassing topic, vaginal dryness is a common condition which can and should be addressed.
"I find that many women see it as part of ageing and just sort of deal with it. But half of women don't get these symptoms as they age. So, it's not just a part of aging," says Dr Caroline Mitchell, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynaecology, and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School.
Here are some other factors that can cause vaginal dryness:
1. Childbirth and breastfeeding
Your oestrogen and progesterone levels soar while you are pregnant, but end up dropping drastically after childbirth. This fluctuation in hormones can cause postpartum vaginal dryness as oestrogen is responsible for blood flow to the vagina and the lubrication of the area.
Breastfeeding is responsible for further fluctuation of the hormones. Moisture levels in the vagina should, however, return to normal when you are done breastfeeding.
2. Excessive exercise
While exercise is necessary to maintain a healthy weight and increase your energy, overdoing it or going through periods of strenuous exercise (e.g. training for a competition or event if you are a professional athlete) can take its toll on hormone levels, which may lead to vaginal dryness.
3. Your medication
Vaginal dryness can be a side-effect of some medications. As antihistamines, commonly used for treating allergies, affect histamine production in the body, they may dry out the mucous membranes, including those inside the vagina. Some antidepressants may also have this effect.
If you experience vaginal dryness out of the blue and you are sure the reason is not hormonal, check possible medication side effects with your doctor.
4. Immune conditions such as Sjögren’s syndrome
Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the cells in your body that produce moisture. It usually affects the saliva glands and tear ducts, but the tissue lining inside the vagina may also be affected.
5. Personal hygiene practices
The delicate pH balance inside the vagina can easily be disturbed by strongly fragranced soaps and shower gels. According to Dr Hailey MacNear, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Folsom OBGYN in the USA, less is most certainly more when it comes to vaginal hygiene.
“The vagina is a delicate ecosystem and problems can arise if there is a shift in the balance. The vagina is meant to be a self-cleaning system and many organisms already live in the vagina and are kept at healthy levels by coexisting with other organisms.”
Vaginal dryness may also cause unpleasant itching and burning. If you suspect that a bath product may be the reason, stop using the product and wash with cool or lukewarm water.
There is no reason to be embarrassed about vaginal dryness. Here are some tips on how to manage the condition:
- Use a lubricant when having sexual intercourse.
- Avoid any fragranced personal hygiene products, as this may aggravate vaginal dryness.
- Drink plenty of water to keep your body well hydrated.
- Speak to your doctor, who may be able to determine whether the underlying cause is hormonal.
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