Vaginal atrophy is a condition which occurs due to a decrease in the levels of estrogen in a woman's body. Another name for the condition is atrophic vaginitis. Estrogen is considered to be the female hormone and is produced, in the main, by the ovaries. The hormone plays a crucial part in preserving the vaginal tissues and in producing the vaginal mucus which helps to lubricate the vagina.
When the body doesn't produce enough estrogen, the vaginal tissues begin to atrophy and the vaginal walls thin out. The vagina becomes dry and shrunken. In this atrophied state, the vagina becomes more susceptible to inflammation. There are several common conditions that contribute to a decrease in estrogen levels, and which can lead to vaginal atrophy. Some of these conditions include:
*Menopause-The menopausal state is a normal age-related change in the body that causes the ovaries to produce less estrogen.
*Breastfeeding-Lactation causes a temporary decrease in a woman's estrogen levels which resolves upon the weaning of the baby.
*Surgical excision of the ovaries-When the ovaries are removed, the primary source for estrogen production is lost and levels decrease.
*Medications designed to decrease estrogen levels-These medications are indicated for the treatment of uterine fibroids and endometriosis.
*Premature menopause-Menopause which occurs before the age of 40 is considered early since this is an age which is lower than that of the average menopausal woman.
Vaginal atrophy is a slow process and it may take as long as five to ten years after the start of menopause until a woman notices symptoms. Symptoms of this condition include:
*A burning or itching sensation in the vagina
*Pain during sexual intercourse
*Spotting or light bleeding after intercourse
In trying to determine the cause of your symptoms, your physician will inquire as to whether you have begun menopause or are experiencing the symptoms of menopause, such as the cessation of or irregular menstrual periods, wakeful nights, hot flashes, and night sweats. If you are of childbearing age, your physician will want to know whether you are breastfeeding or whether your periods have become irregular. Irregular menstruation can be caused by a decrease in estrogen levels or by a hormonal imbalance. Other considerations include your medical and surgical history as well as information on any medications you may be taking.
In order to diagnose atrophic vaginitis, your physician will want to examine your vulva and vagina to see if there are signs of redness, thinning of the tissues, and dryness. If you have already begun menopause and are bleeding after sex, your physician may decide to rule out endometrial cancer, or cancer of the uterine lining. This is done with an endometrial biopsy. A small sample of tissue is taken from the uterine lining and is examined by laboratory technicians. Another diagnostic test your doctor may wish to perform is the Pap test, which is performed to detect cervical cancer.