Q: Are the changes I see in my vaginal skin normal?

You say the skin is becoming lighter and sometimes is dry, sometimes moist or itchy. That sounds completely consistent with the changes of vulvovaginal atrophy (VVA), which results from the absence of estrogen. It's a gradual progression; it may not be particularly bothersome at first but may be more noticeable in the months and years to come.

The consequences of lost estrogen are often most noted in the vulva or vaginal tissues. Our bodies have lots of estrogen receptors, meaning estrogen plays a role there--from head to toe. But there are more estrogen receptors concentrated in the vagina and the vulva than in any other part of the body. \In and of itself, VVA doesn't require treatment. If you have uncomfortable symptoms, there are treatment options, including localized estrogenvaginal moisturizers, and more.

You might also be aware that natural vaginal pH levels rise in the absence of estrogen, which means a woman can be more susceptible to infections. Symptoms to watch for are discharge, irritation, and/or odor.

E Is for Estrogen

Estrogen is the queen of hormones. From our brains to our bones to our bottoms, estrogen keeps our systems regulated, lubricated, elastic, and running smoothly. Estrogen doesn’t just trigger sexual development in our breasts, uterus, vagina, and ovaries (although it does that, too), but it also regulates the production of cholesterol in our liver; it affects mood and body temperature from the brain; it protects again loss of bone density; and it keeps our sexual organs responsive and functional.

Estrogen is actually a category—a group composed of three chemically similar hormones. Estrone and estradiol are mostly produced in the ovaries, adrenal glands, and fatty tissue of all female mammals. Estriol is produced by the placenta during pregnancy. These estrogens circulate in the bloodstream and bind to receptors located throughout our bodies.

Not surprisingly, most of those estrogen receptors are located in the vulva, vagina, urethra, and the neck of the bladder, and that's  why we talk about estrogen so much in this blog and at MiddlesexMD. It’s the critical hormone that keeps our sexual apparatus healthy and functional.

Before menopause, a healthy vagina has

  • thick, moist “skin,” or epithelium
  • tissues with many folds (rugations) that allow the vagina to expand and become roomier
  • differentiated layers of cells—superficial and intermediate
  • secretions from the vaginal walls and cervix that help maintain a slightly acidic pH balance
  • an increase in blood flow and lubricating secretions during sexual arousal
  • toned pelvic floor muscles that help to hold our internal organs in place

So, ladies, it’s easy to see that when our estrogen levels drop dramatically during menopause, virtually all of us will experience significant change to our vulvovaginal tissue. The umbrella term for that change is “vulvovaginal atrophy.” Here’s what happens to our genital area when we lose estrogen:

  • the epithelium becomes pale, thin, and more likely to tear
  • the vagina shortens and narrows
  • vaginal walls lose rugations (those folds or pleats) and become smooth
  • cells become less differentiated—there are more intermediate and fewer superficial cells
  • the vagina becomes dry without secretions to maintain a good pH balance or to lubricate during sex
  • the vulva shrinks and pubic hair thins
  • the pelvic floor loses muscle tone, so organs relax and sometimes sag (prolapse)

It’s not a pretty list, but it’s our new, postmenopausal normal. Vaginal atrophy can bring more frequent vaginal and urinary tract infections as well as more painful sex. And since painful sex usually means less sex, both our relationship and our quality of life can suffer.

Fortunately, as we’ve discussed many times in this blog and at the MiddlesexMD website, there are simple and effective ways to ease the effect of estrogen loss. These include using moisturizers and lubricants or topical estrogen products, doing our kegels, and talking to our doctors about vulvovaginal changes.

Losing estrogen and its beneficial effects is inevitable as we grow older, but losing function, sexual or otherwise, isn’t. Sex—and life—can be just as enjoyable. They just take more maintenance now.

Estrogen Where It’s Needed

Okay, so you’ve tried everything. You regularly use a good, natural moisturizer, plus a lubricant during sex. No soaps, sprays, scents, dyes, or synthetic underwear ever touch your bottom. You’re the queen of vaginal hygiene. And still you’re troubled by dry, itching, or inflamed genitals and painful penetration.

What now?

Talk to your doctor about using a localized estrogen product for your vagina. These medicines deliver low dosages of estrogen right where it’s needed: the vagina and vulva. Not only is localized estrogen medication very effective at relieving the discomfort of vaginal inflammation or atrophy, but it also restores natural vaginal lubrication and elasticity. In fact, while it won’t relieve other menopausal symptoms—like hot flashes—low-dosage vaginal estrogen is sometimes more effective in relieving menopausal genital problems than systemic hormone replacement therapies (HRT). Moreover, the dosages are so low, the side effects and complications so negligible, it is often used by breast cancer survivors.

Vaginal estrogen comes in several forms: a cream (used twice a week), or slow-release tablets (used twice a week), or a ring (which needs to be replaced every three months). Don’t, however, confuse the Estring vaginal ring with Femring, which is the high-dosage HRT in a vaginal ring form. (Confusing? It can be.) Your doctor will tailor the amount and frequency of application for the maximum effect at the lowest possible dose. It may also take several weeks for treatment to become fully effective.

A few precautions:

  • Avoid applying your estrogen cream right before intercourse, since your partner can absorb it through his penis. Estrogen rings and tablets are meant to stay in place and don’t have this effect.
  • Continue to use non-hormonal lubricants and moisturizers if necessary.
  • Have regular vaginal intercourse to augment natural lubrication and a healthy vagina.
While localized estrogen may not be the first line of defense against the unpleasant genital changes related to menopause, it’s an important option when simpler methods (like vaginal lubricants or moisturizers) fail.

The Vagina Dialogues: Treating Vulvovaginal Atrophy

Remember that play that premiered a few years back called, “The Vagina Monologues”? Well, I wish someone would write one called, “The Vagina Dialogues” so that women would start to realize that it’s okay to talk with their doctors about their vaginas!

As you know, menopause brings with it all kinds of changes to various body parts, including your vagina.  There’s a very common condition called vulvovaginal atrophy (referred to as VA in the medical world), in which the walls of the vagina become thin, dry, and possibly even inflamed due to a decline in estrogen. (The vulva refers to your external genital organs, including the labia and clitoris.)

Symptoms of vulvovaginal atrophy include:

  • Vaginal dryness, irritation, or burning
  • Burning and/or urgency with urination
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Discomfort and/or light bleeding after intercourse

About half of all postmenopausal women will experience some symptoms of atrophy. But often they’ll look at these signs in isolation, not realizing that a urinary tract infection may be directly related to the discomfort they feel during intercourse—and that both might be indicative of vulvovaginal atrophy.

Although treatment is readily available, it has to be diagnosed first. But because women are often too embarrassed to talk with their doctors about vaginal problems, they don’t mention it during annual physicals, let alone pick up the phone when symptoms first concern them.

Instead, they try to treat it themselves, guessing at what might work, not knowing there’s a name for what they’re experiencing. And while over the counter lubricants may offer some short-term relief for dryness, vulvovaginal atrophy is chronic and requires ongoing treatment to address the underlying cause.

Typically, treatment for vulvovaginal atrophy involves some sort of estrogen therapy, in the form of a vaginal tablet or ring or topical cream. But the first step is getting a diagnosis. That’s why it’s so important to talk with your doctor about any changes you experience in your vaginal area.

So please: Don’t be shy and don’t wait. Be proactive and bold when it comes to taking charge of your own body. As with many other parts of life, it’s much easier to maintain healthy tissues and organs than to treat problems long after they’ve begun.

As soon as you feel anything unusual, lubricants don't seem to work as well, or you begin experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, make the call to your physician. And begin your own vagina dialogues, the sooner, the better.

Q: Will dilators help with vaginal atrophy?

Dilators don't treat vaginal atrophy, but they do help counter a consequence of vaginal atrophy: narrowing or shortening of the vaginal. Used over time in graduated sizes, dilators help to restore vaginal length and width, which we also call vaginal capacity.

The loss of estrogen leads to vaginal atrophy. Using vaginal moisturizers and/or vaginal estrogen helps to restore tissue health. In turn, healthy tissue responds well to the use of vaginal dilators for comfortable intercourse!

It helps to understand the varied effects of a reduction in hormones. You can read the whole story on our website in what we call "the recipe" for continued sexual health!