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Cycle A-Z

Vaginal dryness: Why it happens and what you can do about it

by Jen Bell, Writer Reviewed by Nicole Telfer, Science Content Producer
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Top things to know about vaginal dryness:

  • Vaginal dryness can have physical or psychological causes

  • Vaginal lubrication is often closely tied to levels of the hormone estrogen, which changes at various life stages

  • Medications (including hormonal birth control) may cause vaginal dryness

  • You can have a happy and healthy sex life even if you don’t produce much natural vaginal lubrication

Vaginal dryness is common but treatable, and can happen at any age. Symptoms may include a burning sensation, vaginal discomfort or itching, abnormal vaginal discharge, or pain during sex or masturbation.

There can be a number of reasons for vaginal dryness, both psychological and physiological. Whether you’re drier than you would like to be during sexual activity, or are experiencing more general discomfort due to vaginal dryness, here are some of the possible causes—and solutions:

Why is my vagina dry? Common causes of vaginal dryness

Vaginal dryness and estrogen levels

The hormone estrogen helps to keep the vagina moist and to maintain the thickness of the vaginal lining. Atrophic vaginitis (vulvovaginal atrophy) is a common condition that can occur when the ovaries produce a decreased amount of estrogen, which includes the prominent symptom of vaginal dryness (1).

Your body produces less estrogen:

  • At the time of menopause—then it is classified as genitourinary syndrome of menopause

  • After having a baby, particularly if breastfeeding

  • Medications which interfere with reproductive hormone regulation, such as those with treat breast cancer or certain gonadotrophin releasing hormone agonists.

  • Removal of the ovaries, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy of the pelvis (1-5)

Vaginal lubrication and sex

If you’re noticing dryness during vaginal sex, this could be for a number of reasons. Maybe what your partner is doing just doesn’t turn you on. If you feel turned on but are still dry, your body might simply need time to catch up with your brain. If you’re noticing vaginal dryness along with a lack of sexual desire, you may be experiencing low libido, which can be caused by a number of factors including medication and health conditions. Or you just might not be all that into your partner or the acts you are performing together.

Your sexual desire is influenced by some of the same hormones that fluctuate with your cycle, like estrogen and progesterone.

You may find your desire tends to increase in the days leading up to ovulation and decrease after ovulation is over (6,7). Sex drive may be lower when more progesterone is produced during the luteal phase (the days after ovulation and leading up to menstruation) (7). Exactly how reproductive hormones influence desire and preference isn’t the same for everyone; some people report a higher sex drive as part of their premenstrual experience, while other present with decreased libido (8). Tracking desire throughout your cycle can help you discover what’s true for you.

A hand holding a phone with the Clue app opened

Download Clue to track your sex drive and sexual activity.

Vaginal dryness treatments

If you’re experiencing dryness since being on medication or a form of hormonal birth control: talk to your healthcare provider about trying another one that’s a better fit for your body.

If you suspect your dryness could be caused by low estrogen levels, there are several treatment options: vaginal moisturizers or lubricants, local vaginal estrogen cream or tablet,  systemic estrogen (and progesterone) therapy, or sometimes selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) (3). See your healthcare provider to find out what’s the best option for you.

If what your sexual partner is doing doesn’t work for you: you could try discussing your sexual likes and dislikes—you may even find that just talking about it increases your arousal. If you lack desire for your partner, it’s up to you what you do from there, whether you want to re-evaluate your relationship or investigate any health issues that might be messing with your libido.

If you feel turned on but you’re not wet: spending more time on foreplay can be one way to increase your natural lubrication. Another option is to use personal lubricant (lube) during sexual activity or masturbation.

Use a personal lubricant for “simply better sex”

In a 2013 study, lubricant use was associated with higher ratings of sexual pleasure and satisfaction in both solo masturbation and partnered sexual activities. More than 9 out of 10 women in the study agreed or strongly agreed that lube made sex feel “more comfortable,” “more pleasurable,” and simply “better” (9).

Lubricants made with water or silicone can be used with latex condoms and diaphragms. Oil-based products, such as petroleum jelly, baby oil, mineral oil, or vegetable oils are not healthy to use internally, and are likely to damage latex condoms and/or diaphragms and make them less effective at preventing pregnancy or STIs.

A study published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology found that women who had used petroleum jelly as lube in the past month were more than twice as likely as non-users to have bacterial vaginosis (10). Hand or body lotions are not recommended either, as they can be irritating to vaginal tissues.

If you prefer to use something natural, avoid using food products like olive oil or coconut oil as this can lead to yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis. Instead, try an organic lubricant or a water-based lube without additives.

Other possible causes of vaginal dryness

Aside from sexual arousal and estrogen levels, there are additional factors that can affect vaginal lubrication:

Vaginal dryness can be a side effect of some medications and contraceptives. Talk to your healthcare provider to find out if the source of your vaginal dryness could actually be your medication or contraception (11).  

Cigarette smokers have been shown to have an increased risk of an earlier menopause transition as compared to non-smokers. This means that atrophic vaginitis symptoms may appear at a younger age in this population (2).

Sjögren’s syndrome could be another cause of possible vaginal (and other symptoms of dryness). This is an autoimmune disease where the body’s glands aren’t able to produce enough moisture (12)

If you’ve checked out everything else and still don’t find the culprit, you might have an allergy to chemicals in soap, detergent, lubricant or hygiene products—these can also cause vaginal dryness or irritation. Try switching to natural products and wash with unperfumed soap or just water, and see if your symptoms improve.

Your vagina is self-cleaning, so there is no need to use any internal washes (douches) or vaginal deodorants—in fact, they can be harmful. Research has linked the practice of douching with increased risk of bacterial and yeast infections, pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical cancer, increased transmission of STIs, upper genital tract infections, endometritis (inflammation of the lining of the uterus), and other adverse health outcomes (13,14).

Use Clue to track vaginal fluid throughout your cycle.

Article was originally published on Oct. 13, 2017.

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