Vaginal atrophy, or atrophic vaginitis, is thinning of the wall of the vagina that occurs during the menopause in women. It occurs mostly due to lower level of estrogen. Estrogen is produced by the ovaries. Estrogen keeps the vaginal tissues lubricated and healthy. Estrogens also controls the development of female body characteristics such as the breasts, body shape, and body hair, as well as menstrual cycle and pregnancy. When levels of estrogen are low, vaginal tissue becomes thin, dry and shrunken, i.e. atrophic.
The symptoms of vaginal atrophy may appear years after the menopause. Symptoms may be mild to severe, and these are:
- vaginal dryness
- vaginal itching and burning
- vaginal irritation
- pain durin sexual intercourse
- vaginal infections
- similar symptoms to the menopausal transition: hot flashes, sweats, mood changes, fatigue, memory problems
The cause of vaginal atrophy is the decreased estrogen. Estrogen reduces in the following cases:
- after menopause
- in the years before the menopause
- after surgery of both ovaries
- after cancer chemotherapy
- hormonal treatment for breast cancer
- during breast-feeding
The risk factors for vaginal atrophy are:
- no sexual activity (tissues are more elastic with sexual activity)
- no births
Complications from vaginal atrophy are vaginitis and urinary problems. Vaginitis may occur due to acid imbalance. Urinary problems often occur alongside vaginal problems; urinary incontinence or urinary infections are the possible complications.
Prevention of vaginal atrophy is possible with regular sexual activity, with or without a partner. This is because sexual intercourse improves blood circulation to the vagina, which helps to maintain vaginal tissue.
Painful sexual intercourse can be prevented by applying a water-soluble vaginal lubricant to moisten the tissues.