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An MD Explains Why You Might Not Be Getting Wet During Sex

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We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? This week’s topic: Why is my vagina so dry, and what can I do about it?

Q: I think there may be something wrong with my vagina. It’s always dry, even when I know I’m super turned on. It’s not only awkward, but it makes sex hurt and guys never believe me when I say that I really am into it, I’m just not wet. Is there anything I can do to make my vagina less dry? And why is it happening?

A: Vaginal dryness isn't as awkward as you might think — in fact, most of us will run into it at some point. Most people experience vaginal dryness starting in menopause, with one in three menopausal people with vaginas feeling parched in their lower parts, according to the University of California, Santa Barbara. However, it can happen at any age; a little less than 20% of people who haven't gone through menopause report not getting wet enough during sex, making vaginal dryness the second most common sexual challenge for this group behind low libido.

You already know more or less what vaginal dryness feels like, because it’s named so very obviously (you win this round, doctors). What you may not know is that this lack of moisture down there can also result in itchiness, burning, pain or bleeding during sex, and even frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs).

But why does vaginal dryness happen in the first place? If you find yourself asking why is my vagina so dry every time you try to get down 'n' dirty, you can talk to your doctor about getting that slippery feeling back. Here are a couple possible culprits to think about.

1. Low Estrogen Levels

Typically, the walls of your vagina are constantly lubricated by a thin layer of liquid, thanks to the hormone estrogen. Estrogen dips during perimenopause — right before your periods end — and after menopause, which is why so many people experience vaginal dryness during that time of life. Other reasons why your estrogen may be low, according to the Mayo Clinic, include childbirth, breastfeeding, chemotherapy, and smoking cigarettes.

"If the dryness is hormone-related, like from a drop in estrogen after menopause, people can consider hormonal creams and suppositories like estradiol and prasterone or non-hormonal suppositories like hyaluronic acid," Dr. Leslie Meserve, M.D., chief medical officer and co-founder of CurieMD, a telehealth platform for menopausal women, tells Bustle.

Some people experience intense side effects from the higher levels of hormones. Your health care provider can figure out if your estrogen levels have dipped and prescribe the appropriate therapy, so talk to them about your symptoms and they'll find the best fit for you.

2. Medications

Dr. Meserve says that a number of medications can cause vaginal dryness. These include antihistamines (which can be found in allergy and cold medications), some antidepressants, some asthma medicines, and anti-estrogen medications, which are often taken to treat endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and some cancers.

"That’s where treatments like hormonal creams and suppositories ... are helpful," Dr. Meserve says.

If you’re not down with the side effects you’re getting from the medication you’re taking, talk to your doctor. There may be another medicine that gives you the same results, but with fewer or different side effects. They may also be able to recommend ways to alleviate the side effects if you need to stick with your current meds.

3. Sjögren's Syndrome

Sjögren's syndrome (pronounced "SHOH-grins") is an autoimmune disorder that causes your immune system to attack your moisture-making glands. Unsurprisingly, this can make your vagina and vulva dry, as one 2020 study published in the journal Rheumatology found, along with your tear and saliva glands. While anyone can get this disorder, women are nine times more likely to have it than men, and it’s most common in middle-aged white women, according to the Mayo Clinic. Your doctor can perform various tests to determine if your symptoms are caused by Sjögren's Syndrome. They'll also help you figure out the best treatment for your dry vagina, which could include an estrogen cream, vaginal moisturizers for day-to-day comfort, or lube.

4. Irritants

Lots of soaps or lubes have harsh chemicals that can cause your vagina to be drier than usual. It should go without saying, but douches 100% fall into this category, too.

"Vaginas are like brilliant self-cleaning ovens," Dr. Meserve says. "They know exactly what they need and are continuously activating processes to balance out moisture and pH. Douching removes helpful natural bacteria, changes the natural pH of the vagina, and actually keeps it from doing its normal cleaning job. Under healthy conditions, nature does a great job keeping this power pocket healthy."

You don't have to stop washing your vagina and vulva; just choose a soap without fragrance or dye, if it's making you sensitive. It's not a bad idea to write up a list of soaps or other products that come into contact with your bits to help you and your doctor get to the bottom of your dry vagina woes.

5. Insufficient Arousal

If your zone is too dry when you're trying to have sex, it might be that you're just not turned on enough. In fact, a 2009 survey of over 6,000 people in 11 countries found that this was the most common reason people cited for vaginal dryness. People with vulvas need a lot of warm up before penetration, so try adding some new ways of touching and making out before going for penis-in-vagina or finger-in-vagina or sex toy-in-vagina sex.

Seriously, take your time. Sex isn’t a race. If your partner doesn’t seem to know the importance of foreplay, feel free to share some education about it.

If you are doing everything sexy you can possibly think of and still aren’t getting turned on, you may have low libido — or you just may not be all that into your partner or the deeds you're doing together. Take some time to really ask yourself: Is it my body? Or is it this situation? If it's the sex acts that aren't working for you, suggest some new ones.

6. Psychological/Emotional Factors

When you’re stressed, your body produces higher levels of a hormone called cortisol. These hormone are naturally in your body, but when it hits high levels, it can interfere with your sexual response, as one 2018 study published in Frontiers in Endocrinology found. The result? Vaginal dryness.

Everyone deals with stress differently. Some people find meditation to be very helpful, or more targeted tools such as mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR). Talk therapy has also been shown to help many people manage their stress and anxiety. The important thing is to talk to your mental health support team about what's going on behind the scenes.

The Bottom Line

There are a lot of reasons why you could be experiencing a drier-than-desirable vagina. Regardless of why your vagina is so dry, moisturizing and lubricating products made specially for vaginas can help while you figure out what the deal is — many are even available over the counter. You and your doctor can work together to get to the bottom of it.

Experts cited:

Dr. Leslie Meserve, M.D., chief medical officer and co-founder of CurieMD

Studies referenced:

Jolien F van Nimwegen, Karin van der Tuuk, Silvia C Liefers, Gwenny M Verstappen, Annie Visser, Robin F Wijnsma, Arjan Vissink, Harry Hollema, Marian J E Mourits, Hendrika Bootsma, Frans G M Kroese (2020). Vaginal dryness in primary Sjögren’s syndrome: a histopathological case–control study, Rheumatology, , keaa017, https://doi.org/10.1093/rheumatology/keaa017

Leiblum, Sandra R. et al. Vaginal Dryness: A Comparison of Prevalence and Interventions in 11 Countries. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, Volume 6, Issue 9, 2425 - 2433.

Amabebe, E., & Anumba, D. (2018). Psychosocial Stress, Cortisol Levels, and Maintenance of Vaginal Health. Frontiers in endocrinology, 9, 568. https://doi.org/10.3389/fendo.2018.00568 https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01369.x