Vaginal dryness is a common but treatable problem that many women experience at some point in their lives.
It can be a problem at any age, but is a particular issue for women who are going through or have experienced the menopause.
Don't ignore a dry vagina or feel embarrassed to seek help if it's a problem for you. There are a number of treatments that can help.
This page covers:
Symptoms of a dry vagina
Some women only have symptoms of vaginal dryness at certain times, such as during sex, while others have them all the time.
Problems associated with having a dry vagina include:
- vaginal irritation, discomfort, itchiness or a burning sensation
- discomfort during sex
- a reduced sex drive
- difficulty getting aroused and reaching orgasm
- the surface of the vagina looks pale and thin
- narrowing or shortening of the vagina
- needing to pee more often than usual
- repeated urinary tract infections (UTIs)
Causes of vaginal dryness
Causes of a dry vagina include:
- the menopause - decreased levels of the hormone oestrogen during the menopause can cause persistent vaginal dryness (also known as vaginal atrophy or atrophic vaginitis)
- breastfeeding or childbirth - oestrogen levels can temporarily decrease after giving birth and make your vagina feel drier than usual
- not being aroused before sex - if you don't feel aroused before having sex, your vagina may not produce natural lubricant and sex may be uncomfortable
- some types of contraception - the combined contraceptive pill and contraceptive injection can occasionally cause vaginal dryness, although this is uncommon
- cancer treatment - radiotherapy to the pelvic area, hormonal cancer treatments, and sometimes chemotherapy can cause vaginal dryness
What to do if you have a dry vagina
If you're having problems with vaginal dryness, it's worth trying self-help options first. It can help to:
- try using a lubricant or vaginal moisturiser - these can be bought without a prescription
- give yourself enough time to become aroused before having sex - read more about female arousal and get good sex tips
It's a good idea to see your GP for advice if:
- self-help measures aren't effective
- your symptoms are particularly severe and are interfering with your normal activities
- you have other troublesome symptoms, such as hot flushes and night sweats
Don't feel embarrassed about seeking help. Vaginal dryness is a common problem that GPs see frequently.
Treatments for vaginal dryness
The main treatments that can help if you have a dry vagina are:
Lubricants are liquids or gels that you apply to your vulva, vagina or your partner's penis just before having sex to keep your vagina moist. They offer immediate but short-term relief from vaginal dryness.
Several different brands of lubricant are available to buy from shops and pharmacies without a prescription. You may need to experiment with a few different types to find one that works best for you.
Vaginal moisturisers are creams that you apply inside your vagina to keep it moist.
They may be better than lubricants if the dryness isn't just causing problems during sex, as they tend to have a longer-lasting effect. They usually need to be applied every few days.
As with lubricants, several different brands are available to buy. You may need to experiment with a few different types to find one that works best for you.
Water-based moisturisers are generally best, as oil or petroleum-based products can damage latex condoms and sometimes irritate the vagina.
Your GP may prescribe vaginal oestrogen if your dryness is caused by the menopause. This works by increasing the level of oestrogen that declines during and after the menopause.
Vaginal oestrogen is available as pills you place in your vagina (pessaries), vaginal creams and vaginal rings. These all work equally well, but you may find one type more convenient to use.
Oestrogen treatment can be more effective than lubricants and moisturisers for menopausal women, and it generally causes few side effects.
However, it can take a few weeks to start working, so you may want to use a lubricant or moisturiser as well to begin with. Treatment usually needs to be continued indefinitely, as the dryness tends to return if treatment stops.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
HRT is a treatment that involves taking medication to replace the hormones that start to decline during the menopause.
It's available on prescription from your GP either as tablets, a skin patch, an implant under the skin, or a gel that's applied to the skin.
HRT has a wider effect on the body than vaginal oestrogen, so may be best if you have other menopause symptoms, such as hot flushes. However, it also has more side effects.