Atrophic vaginitis can cause itching, burning,
and sexual discomfort — but treatments are available
Inflamed vaginal tissue may not be something most women want to talk
about, but it can be painful and life altering for those who have it.
Atrophic vaginitis, the medical term for this condition, occurs as
a result of deterioration of the vaginal tissue. It's a common condition
in postmenopausal women because as estrogen levels drop, the tissue
that lines the vagina becomes thinner and more easily damaged. The
top layer of cells is often lost entirely, exposing the layer below,
which is more vulnerable to inflammation or infection. Vaginal secretions
also decline, which can make intercourse painful. Women with atrophic
vaginitis may also experience vaginal itching, burning, frequent urination,
or vaginal discharge.
Women can treat this condition topically with estrogen creams, tablets
(Vagifem), or an estrogen-releasing ring placed in the vagina (Estring).
Oral estrogen, available with a doctor’s prescription, will also
restore vaginal tissue. Vaginal lubricants offer an alternative for women
wary of using estrogen. Moisturizers such as Replens, Astroglide, and
Lubrin can reduce symptoms and make sexual intercourse more comfortable.
They are available over the counter.
Sexual activity may also help preserve the vaginal epithelium, presumably
by increasing blood flow to the area. A study of 52 postmenopausal women
found significantly less vaginal atrophy among those who had intercourse
more than 3 times a week than among those who had intercourse less than
10 times per year. Sexual activity also helps maintain an acidic vaginal
climate, which offers some protection against infection.
Women with atrophic vaginitis are also at risk for infectious vaginitis.
The microorganisms that usually cause problem for women— most commonly
Candida (yeast), Gardnerella, or Trichomonas—are more likely to
strike women with atrophied vaginal tissue. If a woman’s atrophic
vaginitis symptoms become more pronounced or if the vaginal discharge
changes or increases, she should be tested for infectious vaginitis and
skin problems of the vulva, which usually respond quickly to topical
and oral medications.
July 2003 Update
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