Exploring the Many Symptoms Associated with Menopause
Very few words pertaining to the human body conjure negative feelings for women as menopause. We witness perimenopause and menopause in our mothers, grandmothers, and friends, dreading the day we go through it ourselves. We’re aware of the many symptoms this natural process produces along its path and very few of them excite us. Among the many well-known symptoms of menopause is one not as familiar: what menopause can do to your vagina.
What is Menopause?
Menopause is the period in your life that your menstrual cycles stop - that’s it. Once your period has stopped for at least 12 months, your physician may officially diagnose menopause. Many of the symptoms associated with menopause actually occur during perimenopause - the months or years leading up to menopause in which your body goes through several changes. Menopause most often occurs in your 40s or 50s; according to The Mayo Clinic, the average age for American women is 51.
Perimenopause often starts in your 40s although some women experience perimenopause during their mid-30s.
Symptoms: What Some Women Experience During Perimenopause
Hot flashes, night sweats, irregular periods, various levels of urinary incontinence, and mood swings all might come to mind when you hear the word “menopause,” and for good reason: these are common symptoms! Your body will likely go through many changes during perimenopause as your body ends its reproductive viability. Some women experience fluctuations in weight, changes in their hair or skin, and noticeable differences in the way their vagina feels and functions.
During the time leading up to menopause, your body begins greatly fluctuating its production of estrogen and progesterone. Your hormonal balance becomes out of sync, causing much more than ‘hormonal mood swings’. These hormones are responsible for much of your reproductive system and function, but also play a role in other body systems.
Changes in Your Vagina: What to Expect Before You Experience It
According to the North American Menopause Society, estrogen plays a role in keeping the muscles and tissue in your vulvovaginal area flexible and lubricated. As your body reduces its production of estrogen you may experience vaginal atrophy, a condition that causes the tissues in this area to thin, dry out and become much less flexible. This can make everyday life uncomfortable. Sexually active women may experience different sensations during intercourse or, in some cases, outright pain. Because estrogen assists in the natural lubrication of your vagina, menopausal women may find they need additional lubricants for sexual activity.
Women who are not sexually active - or those who aren’t sexually active on a regular basis - may experience their vagina becoming much tighter than before due to the vagina growing narrower and shorter. This creates a serious problem if they do want to be intimate as the vagina tissue is fragile and prone to tearing, bleeding, or otherwise injured.
Menopause doesn’t only affect your vagina, but oftentimes your urinary tract. Estrogen also assists in the function of your pelvic floor muscles - the group of muscles that hold your bladder, bowel, and reproductive organs. Common symptoms of vaginal atrophy and menopause in your vulvovaginal area range from uncomfortable or painful to embarrassing.
You may experience dryness, burning, or itching in and around your vagina; some women also experience vaginal discharge due to vaginal atrophy.
Urinary incontinence also comes along with menopause and vaginal atrophy for many. Women may experience different types of incontinence, particularly urges to urinate frequently or small leaks when laughing, coughing, or lifting.
When It’s Necessary to Speak to Your OB/GYN
While menopause is an inevitable part of a woman’s life, many women find themselves embarrassed by these symptoms and don’t speak with their physician. Many natural and at-home treatments exist for several of these symptoms; your physician may help develop a plan for you to control the havoc of menopausal life. Over-the-counter water-based lubricants or vaginal moisturizers are readily available. Pelvic floor exercises may help strengthen the muscles that support your bladder, reducing urinary incontinence.
A few symptoms, however, require a meeting with your doctor, including spotting or bleeding, unusual discharge, soreness, or a burning sensation. If any symptoms concerning your vagina make you uncomfortable or you’re just not sure what’s going on down there, speak with your physician to rule out something more serious than the typical menopausal symptoms. Nobody knows your vagina like you do; it’s up to you to take care of it throughout its life.