Painful Sex: 6 Ways to Relieve Vaginal Dryness

A new survey reveals that painful sex is a big problem for women, but there are real solutions.

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I'm not surprised by a new survey showing that the majority of women over 50 who experience vaginal dryness don't feel comfortable talking to their doctors about it. The survey, sponsored by hormone therapy manufacturer Novo Nordisk, finds that 40 percent of post-menopausal women experience dryness and pain but that 7 out of 10 aren't seeking any advice from a gynecologist or family physician.

The truth is, I've had vaginal dryness, too, after the birth of my first baby, and I didn't think of broaching the topic at my postnatal exam. I don't remember being told that this was a common side effect of plummeting estrogen levels after pregnancy. Though it makes perfect sense—nature's way of saying let's hold off on getting pregnant again, at least until your body no longer needs to produce all that milk.

New moms weren't surveyed by Novo Nordisk, since they can't use the estrogen creams and tablets produced by the company. They also weren't surveyed by hormone maker Wyeth in its new report showing that 1 in 4 post-menopausal women has such bad vaginal dryness that she experiences burning and sharp pain during intercourse. Breast cancer patients weren't included either, even though they, too, frequently have severe vaginal dryness. They're usually told not to use estrogen products because of risks associated with recurrence.

So what are the best ways to relieve vaginal dryness? Nursing mothers and those with a history of breast cancer can try the first five things below, while post-menopausal women with no health problems can try all six. And, yes, do talk to your doctor about these problems since they can sometimes be caused by medications like antidepressants or an autoimmune disease called Sjogren's syndrome.

1. Stay hydrated. Drinking six to eight glasses of water a day will help keep your tissues moist, including those below the belt.

2. Lubricate, and lubricate some more. Many women achieve instant relief simply by using a lubricant. There are at least half a dozen of these on drugstore shelves. You may need to experiment to find one that works best for you.

3 . Avoid personal hygiene sprays. Chemicals in these products can be irritating to delicate tissues that line the vagina.

4 . Skip the douching. This can disrupt the vagina's normal chemical balance, leading to inflammation and dryness.

5 . Eat health ful amounts of "good" fats. Your body needs a little fat with every meal to make adequate levels of sex hormones. Flaxseed oil and soy, which have estrogenlike effects, may help somewhat with vaginal dryness.

6 . Consider a topical estrogen cream and vaginal suppositories. They're an option if your symptoms were brought on by menopause. But you'll also need to take a progesterone tablet if you have a uterus to protect yourself from endometrial cancer. Bioidentical estrogen and progesterone are available for those who want chemically identical versions of the hormones made naturally by the body. Here's a Users' Guide to Bioidentical Hormones.