Queen's University

Women suffer in silence from vaginal atrophy

 
2010-03-11

Millions of women all over the world are living with tremendous and unnecessary vaginal discomfort because they’re too embarrassed to talk about it and too afraid of treatment, says Queen’s obstetrics and gynecology professor Shawna Johnston.

Professor Johnston is a leading researcher in vaginal atrophy, an inflammation of the vagina due to the thinning and shrinking of vaginal tissues. The condition develops during menopause because of decreased levels of estrogen causing changes to the vaginal environment. Professor Johnston is also a spokesperson for The Big Ow, a campaign aimed at helping women with the condition; their website was launched in January.

“I hope women will say, ‘Hey, that’s what I have and I want to talk to you about it,’” says Dr. Johnston.

Symptoms of vaginal atrophy include burning, itching, dryness, irritation and discomfort during intercourse. The condition doesn’t go away on its own or with bandaid solutions like over-the-counter vaginal moisterizers or lubricants, but many women are too shy or embarrassed to discuss the symptoms with their doctor.

The campaign was developed by Novo Nordisk Canada Inc., a pharmaceutical company. Johnston says she got involved because she believes in the cause and that educating women about the condition is the key.

“I think there’s a social taboo about female pelvic anatomy to begin with,” says Dr. Johnston. “Erectile dysfunction isn’t considered taboo, but open discussion about female vaginal symptoms and female sexual dysfunction is still somehow inappropriate. Perhaps it is because women don’t have the language or the knowledge to even begin to talk about it.  That is why education about vaginal atrophy is so important.”

Many women also shy away from treatment when they learn that low-level estrogen replacement is part of the cure. Dr. Johnston says that the controversy surrounding hormone replacement therapy (HRT) scares people, even though in this case the hormone replacement is at such a low level that it’s not harmful.

“Estrogen may not be safe in all forms and all doses,” says Dr. Johnston. “But low, low doses of estrogen administered by the vaginal route are safe. My interest is helping to educate women about a condition all of us are going to have at some point. The truth is that menopausal women just aren’t getting treatment for common, troublesome, persistent vaginal symptoms that negatively impact their daily quality of life.”

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