Being bodies: vaginal dryness

Vaginal dryness affects lots of people, for many different reasons. Some cancer treatments can cause vaginal dryness. Vaginal dryness can also be a symptom of the menopause that some people may experience. Your body and how you feel about sex can also be affected by how you are doing emotionally. For some people, it can feel difficult to seek the right help. This could be because you feel embarrassed or ashamed, or not listened to. It’s important to know that you’re not alone. In today’s Community News blog, we’re talking all about vaginal dryness, and what might help.

“It is so frustrating when something so delicate and intimate can affect us all.”

Community member

The vagina usually produces some natural fluid. If your vagina is producing less of this fluid, some types of sex might feel uncomfortable. This might also affect your day-to-day life. Some common symptoms of vaginal dryness include:

• feeling sore or itchy in and around your vagina
• feeling pain or discomfort during sex
• needing to pee more often than usual
• keeping getting urinary tract infections (UTIs)

Vaginal dryness has lots of different causes. This can include the menopause, and some cancer treatments such as chemotherapy. Your vagina can also be affected by how you feel emotionally. This includes if you’re feeling tired or stressed, or if you aren’t feeling interested in or aroused by sex.

The NHS website has some guidance for relieving vaginal dryness yourself. However, it’s important to see your GP or oncology team if you’re experiencing any new side effects or symptoms.

“This isn’t a trivial symptom, it’s effecting your quality of life . So see your GP.”

Community member

Our nurses also have some tips for managing vaginal dryness, such as using lubrication:

“Many women who are taking hormone therapy have sexual function side effects. These can include vaginal dryness and loss of libido, but they can improve over time. Although lubricants can help, it might be that a vaginal moisturiser that is organic or hypoallergenic may cause less side effects. Your GP or cancer team can prescribe these products.”

Ask a nurse

Talking to medical professionals

There’s nothing wrong or to be ashamed about when it comes to talking about your health and wellbeing. This includes your sexual health. But, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be difficult to talk about your vagina or vulva. You might find it hard to talk to a doctor, loved one or here on the Online Community. It’s easy to feel alone in what you’re experiencing.

“I…find sex so painful both vaginally and bone wise. The idea fills me with dread whenever the subject comes up. Why don’t doctors take it seriously?”

Community member

It can be important to talk to a doctor about any changes to your pelvic area that you might experience during treatment. Alongside vaginal dryness, these can include vaginal narrowing and colour changes. You can find out more on Macmillan’s website page around changes to the female pelvic area.

Macmillan has some information and guidance around talking to your doctor. These tips include being honest and factual about what you’re experiencing. You can also let your doctor know if you feel embarrassed or you find a topic difficult.  It is also okay to say you do not understand the terms used. You can ask your doctor or nurse to explain things in a simpler way.

The Eve Appeal, a charity which specialises in gynaecological cancers, also have some tips around talking to your doctor about your gynaecological health. 

If you feel you’ve been made to feel uncomfortable or embarrassed by an NHS medical professional, please remember the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) is here to help you find the right support.

Having sex

Changes to your vagina might also affect how you feel about sex. You may not want to have some types of sex, or feel worried about how it might feel. If your partner is affected by changes to their vagina, you might worry about hurting them. You might also worry about how they’re feeling. If you have a partner, it can help to explain and talk about how you’re feeling and what’s changed.

“Whilst the psychological impact of this could affect your libido, any hormone changes could also contribute to [vaginal dryness]. You might find this NHS information on loss of libido useful.”

Ask a nurse

A sex therapist can help you to adjust and cope with changes to your sex life and how you feel about sex. The College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists have lots of tips and guidance online around sexual wellbeing. This website offers tips on talking about sex. This website also explains more about what sex therapists can do. This includes rediscovering what you enjoy and busting common myths about sex.

“I have vaginal dryness following my brachytherapy post hysterectomy for Endometrial cancer. I now have to use dilators and I use Optilube which is a sterile lubricating jelly… I'll let you into a secret, after using dilators I experimented with buzzy toys and at the grand old age of 67 found how much fun can be had.”

Community member

Everyone’s sex life can look very different. For some people, thinking about sex during treatment, or while you’re experiencing certain side effects, might make you feel worried or uncomfortable. Some members here on the Online Community have talked about their decision not to have sex during their cancer treatment. It’s important that you feel comfortable to do what is right for you. This might might mean adjusting your sex life, or not having sex at all.

“We tried to have a normal sex life. We had a go after the first cycle but it just felt weird... my whole area down there was just off and didn't feel the same to either of us…We had an open and honest conversation about it and agreed not to worry about sex during treatment…In the end, we just went with the flow and didn't worry about it. We both agreed that sex was not a priority and that it would come back. Pleased to say it has come back and is completely normal again”

Community member

You and your body

Feeling that your vagina has changed might not only affect your relationship with a romantic partner, but also your relationship with your body. Everyone’s body can look different before, during and after treatment ends.

It’s important to look after yourself emotionally. One member talked about how they helped themselves to feel more confident in their body during their treatment:

“Little things for me really mattered in maintaining a positive self image and therefore a comfortability and confidence in my appearance was important. I regularly bought myself pretty new sets of underwear that made me feel good (and that felt nice, no scratchy fabrics!), I lathered myself in really gorgeous moisturisers & creams to keep my skin in tip top condition…I also had a very open conversation with my partner about using gentle & relaxing sex toys in the bedroom that we’d both enjoy and look forward to using.”

Community member

You might find that there are other ways you can help yourself to feel more confident in your body. It’s normal to need to take the time to find what works for you. Macmillan’s booklet, “Body image and cancer”, has further information around managing changes.

If you’re experiencing vaginal changes such as vaginal dryness, you’re not alone. Lots of people might feel the same way. Why not reach out to talk about how you’re feeling here on the Online Community cancer forum?

Our “Being bodies” series is all about exploring our relationships with our bodies, from head to toe. You can read our other blogs in the series below: