Should I be worried about vaginal atrophy?

Last week I wrote a post about how the Bot Ad Overlords and my friends crowdsourced me a new anxiety: incontinence. I alluded to another worry that’s coming close on its heels: vaginal atrophy.

Or, as the New York Times recently called it, “the incredible shrinking vagina.”

What exactly is vaginal atrophy?

Essentially, as your estrogen levels drop during menopause, the “skin of the vulva and vagina become thinner with a loss of elasticity.” Labia minora can also shrink. And all of this is commonly accompanied by dryness, or, other symptoms during sex, “loss of lubrication, an uncomfortable sandpaper-like sensation, pain, difficulties achieving orgasm and even tearing of the vagina or vulva. There is also an increased risk of urinary tract infections.” Oh — and also according to the NYT — “as estrogen is crucial to maintaining the bacterial colonies of the vagina, there can also be a change in the type of bacteria, which can lead some women to notice a change in their typical smell.” This delightful array of symptoms is formally known as “genitourinary syndrome of menopause” — or GSM.

I think I speak for all of us when I say:

So what to do? What to do?

That link to the NYT piece has some basic suggestions, including obvious things like unscented soap, lube and vaginal moisturizers. But these are about managing symptoms — to try to do any prevention, you need to explore with your doctor about whether different pharmaceutical options, like vaginal estrogen creams etc., are a possibility.

This is where the feminist piece comes in for me: short of asking me “are you still having periods?” my doctor has never raised or mentioned anything about peri-menopause, my aging uterus or dwindling hormones — let alone my shrinking vagina. (I’m working hard here not to start to mentally distance myself from my discomfort here by using terminology like “my petrifying pussy” or “languishing ladygarden.” I never use those kinds of terms, but my inner voices are all like, eek must make this a joke!) It’s one of those not-talked-about things.

We were talking about this NYT piece the other day and Susan pointed out that if things are going to shrivel, by the time you become symptomatic enough for a doc to treat it as a thing, things are already shrunken, and you’re managing symptoms, not preventing anything.

So this is my little feminist rant for this: older vagina-having people are sexual beings, and it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to want to preserve your juiciness. Docs aren’t going to offer anything until it’s a problem. Topical estrogen seems to be a (relatively, of course) safe option to prevent shrinkage. Seize your own destiny on this.

What’s up next in the “Icky Things my genitals might do” series?

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and ages and frets in Toronto.

7 thoughts on “Should I be worried about vaginal atrophy?

  1. I laughed so hard at “languishing ladygarden”!!!
    Also, something tells me that if men had this, there would be a million remedies (real and fake) out there and this would be A Thing.

  2. I recommend Dr Jen Gunter’s book The Vagina Bible. She also has a blog and a column in the NYT. Gunter is a feminist and science-based medicine advocate.

  3. I laughed out loud.
    My friend thought was I am single and haven’t had sex for a year…and have zero plans to have sex any time soon. What will happen? Omg!? Things I never thought I would ever consider!

  4. “Languishing ladygarden” OMFG thank you. Surely the muscular contractions in my pelvic floor from this deep belly laugh will help prevent pussy petrification!

  5. Yes, we’ll talk about hot flashes and mood swings fairly openly these days but vaginal atrophy and hair loss remain the great menopausal taboos. It’s not just the sex, vulval dryness is uncomfortable as you go about your day. Vaginal oestrogen and a bit of oil-based lube work for me. #loveyourladybits

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