When it comes to down there, mention the words itching or soreness and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve got a bad case of thrush or cystitis.
But before you head to the doc to load up on antibiotics or start pushing pessaries where the sun don’t shine, there may be another cause for these symptoms that’s often overlooked: vaginal dryness.
“Everyone thinks vaginal dryness is all about menopause,” states Dr. Anita Mitra, obstetrics and gynecology specialist and author of “The Gynae Geek.” “But there are so many times people might experience this when they are younger.”
In fact, almost a fifth of women between the ages of 17 and 50 encounter the condition and, while not harmful, it can be incredibly painful and uncomfortable.
We ain’t got no time for parched pussy, so it’s important to get wise to a complaint that can strike at any age.
The symptoms of vaginal dryness are hard to miss, so you’ll know when something is up down south.
As noted before, itching and soreness are two common signs, as is pain during and after sex and when urinating.
“Some women who have a really dry vagina on the outside will get fissures going down toward their bum — that’s the weak point on the vulva,” explains consultant gynecologist Dr. Tania Adib.
As if women don’t have enough to contend with when it comes to menstrual cycles and hormones, a drop in estrogen levels tend to be the key culprit behind vaginal dryness.
“Typically, you’ll feel more dryness when estrogen levels are lower in your cycle,” Dr Mitra reveals.
This means there’s a good chance your vagina might feel a bit drier around the time the crimson wave hits.
“Straight after your period, your estrogen levels will be quite low,” she adds. “But just before your period, you might feel quite dry and irritated, too.”
However, there are a variety of other factors that can affect your estrogen levels and potentially lead to dryness.
First up, take a look at your contraception. “You can certainly get vaginal dryness if you’re on the combined oral contraceptive pill, or the mini pill,” states Dr. Adib.
Our physical and mental health is inextricably linked, and the vagina may not be exempt from this connection. Experiencing depression, anxiety, or high levels of stress may negatively impact blood flow throughout the body — including to genitalia — which may lead to dryness.
Furthermore, “stress impacts how much hormone your brain produces, and that affects how your ovaries function,” Dr. Adib notes.
Breastfeeding? When you’re producing enough milk to feed a baby and start a side hustle as a boutique dairy, the hormonal changes linked with this can also impact your vagina.
Dr Mitra reveals: “During lactation your estrogen levels are low, so you tend to get a lot of dryness.” Because new moms are so busy, this is often something that gets overlooked — but should definitely be taken into consideration.
Last but not least, we’re sorry to report these vices could be behind symptoms of vaginal dryness: smoking and drinking alcohol.
Once you’ve gauged if it’s definitely vaginal dryness, there are a variety of easy measures you can take to help fix it.
1. Dampen down
Not just for getting frisky, lubricants and moisturizers can be used regularly to help stop your vagina resembling the Sahara.
“I’d use a really good quality lubricant, as they are well made and nice for the skin,” Dr Mitra explains. While many are water-based, there are oil-based options, too — but be aware of slathering on the latter if you’re using condoms, as the oil destroys the rubber.
2. Change up your contraception
It’s a no-brainer: If you’re on the pill and not tied to it, try “switching to a different pill or using the coil, [as this] can help,” reveals Dr. Adib.
3. Get appy
Period trackers are great for improving awareness of your menstrual cycle and discovering if your dryness is linked to this.
“Use one to keep an eye on when the dryness is occurring in the cycle,” suggests Dr. Mitra, “as that can help you work out if it’s something that’s meant to be happening.”
4. Food for thought
If you suspect alcohol consumption is a contributor, then you’ll need to cut back.
Otherwise, “there’s no evidence that cutting carbs or dairy will have an effect, and no population-level evidence that a particular food helps or hinders vaginal dryness,” Dr. Mitra states.
5. Supplement yo’self
While this is one medical complaint you don’t need to pop pills for, there is a supplement that can help provide relief, Dr. Adib reveals. “There’s some evidence that sea buckthorn oil — omega-7 — can be really good for vaginal dryness, and I often recommend that women take that.”
What about probiotics? “[They’re] great for vaginal health, but are all about balancing the bacteria, rather than improving moisture,” she says.
6. Cream of the crop
If trying all these measures fails to bring about any positive changes, don’t despair. See your doctor and let them know what you’ve tried and how long you’ve been trying them.
“A really low-dose, topical estrogen cream or tablets can be very helpful,” explains Dr. Adib. “These are also completely safe for breastfeeding moms to take, and available through prescription.”
A sore and itchy vajayjay is never comfortable, so you’ll want to sort it out ASAP. But, as tempting as it might be to become a Google Doctor and self-treat (and avoid any awkward conversations with your GP), it’s important to be examined to get an accurate diagnosis before inserting or applying anything.
This is because the symptoms of dryness are similar to those of some other conditions, often leading to confusion or incorrect treatment.
Often presented as feelings of soreness and itching, thrush is a stubborn yeast overgrowth.
Creams that help fight this won’t keep you moisturized in the long run, just as using a lubricant won’t fight off the condition, so visit a doctor to get tested. This will help determine if symptoms are resulting from dryness or thrush and your doctor will indicate the best course of action.
True fact: You can experience skin complaints on any area of your body, and this could also be behind any persistent vaginal itching and soreness.
“You can get lichen sclerosus, psoriasis, and eczema on the vulva — and they need to be checked for,” Dr. Mitra explains.
And, she reveals, it’s complaints such as these which highlight the importance of receiving the correct treatment — not only for your health now, but later on.
“Lichen sclerosus is usually treated with steroids, and there is a percentile risk of it becoming cancerous,” she says. “The risk is very small, but if you’re not treating yourself properly, then you’re taking that chance. Unfortunately, over the past few years, I’ve seen some older women who have pre-cancer or cancer of the vulva, and they’ve not sought treatment but just been [self-prescribing] creams and lotions. So before you use anything, get checked out.”
If you’ve been fortunate enough to not experience vaginal dryness, you can take action to help ensure it remains that way.
While elements such as menstruation or lactation are out of your control, what you put on or near your genitals is definitely within your remit.
First up, don’t be tempted to use fancy ‘feminine hygiene’ products
“You’re meant to have healthy bacteria in your vagina and, if you wash it away, you’re more likely to stop it growing,” explains Dr. Mitra. “In turn, this can cause the tissue to become super irritated, and even allow thrush or bacterial vaginosis to develop.”
Despite what your instincts (and advertisers) may tell you, using water alone is good enough.
Getting intimate? It’s worth reviewing your rubber of choice.
On occasion, condoms made of latex can contribute to dryness (sometimes as a result of an allergy), but there are plenty of non-latex options available, often being made from polythylene, polyurethane, or polyisoprene.
However, it’s also worth bearing in mind these are more likely to break or slip off during sex in comparison to their latex counterparts.
Consider new underwear
Finally, while that silk and lace underwear may look sexy, it holds less appeal for your vagina.
Synthetic fabrics can cause irritation to the delicate skin in that area, so stick to cotton where possible. That includes sanitary products, too: Aim to use pads or tampons with a high cotton content, or try a silicone menstrual cup.
If you’re experiencing problems, the message is clear: Seek help and wave buh-bye to those dry spells by speaking up. Embarrassment is no reason to live uncomfortably.
“Talking about genitalia is viewed as something dirty, but it’s not,” says Dr. Mitra. “We need to get more comfortable saying the words, and move it away from being a taboo.”
Chantelle Pattemore is a writer and editor based in London, UK. She focuses on lifestyle, travel, food, health and fitness.