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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

What Is It?

Vaginal atrophy is a change of the vagina that develops when there is a significant decrease in levels of the female hormone estrogen. The condition also is called atrophic vaginitis. Estrogen, which is produced by the ovaries, plays a vital role in keeping vaginal tissues lubricated and healthy. When levels of estrogen are low, vaginal tissue becomes atrophic thin, dry and shrunken. The vagina may become more prone to inflammation in an atrophic state. Common conditions with low estrogen levels that cause vaginal atrophy include:

  • Menopause, when normal, age-related body changes cause the ovaries to decrease their production of estrogen

  • Breastfeeding

  • Surgical removal of the ovaries before the age of natural menopause, which can be done at the same time as a hysterectomy (removal of the uterus)

  • Treatment with medications used to decrease estrogen levels in women who have conditions such as uterine fibroids or endometriosis

  • Premature menopause, which occurs before age 40, a younger age than is considered normal for the average woman.

Vaginal atrophy typically develops so slowly that a woman may not notice any symptoms until five to ten years after menopause begins.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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