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The Menopause Problem Women Don't Like to Talk About

It's painful and can ruin your sex life. Could a new "pink Viagra" help?

For example, a study published in 2011 of ultra-low-dose Vagifem tablets, approved by the FDA in 2009, found that the pills, which are inserted into the vagina, provided sufficient estrogen to relieve symptoms and repair the tissue changes associated with menopause.

Inserting the pills vaginally limited absorption of the hormone by the rest of the body, although the products haven't been tested for safety on women who had estrogen-positive breast cancer, the study noted.

Osphena (ospemifene) isn't estrogen, it just acts like it on vaginal tissues. However, the new drug comes with a black-box warning that it can increase the risk for endometrial cancer. As with estrogen therapy, the drug also increases the risk for stroke and deep-vein thrombosis, the FDA said. Women are worried about using hormonal therapies, even localized ones, which is yet another reason women need to talk about their options with their health care provider, says Kingsberg.

Women also may not realize that using certain common products inside the vagina not only won't help their symptoms but could sharply raise the risk of infections.

That much was borne out by a University of California, Los Angeles study published in April, looking at what vaginal products women used and why. The researchers found that women age 50 and older were more likely than women overall to use a petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline, or baby oil inside the vagina — despite warnings on the products not to use them internally — thus increasing their risk of developing bacterial or yeast infections.

Lead author Joelle Brown, an assistant professor with the Department of Epidemiology in UCLA's School of Public Health, said lab tests showed that the women who used petroleum jelly and baby oil were twice as likely to have vaginal infections compared with those who didn't. Using the wrong products can damage vaginal and rectal tissues and allow bacteria to enter, she warned.

As with the Kingsberg study, Brown and her colleagues found that vaginal dryness was a common complaint among older women and the reason they were seeking effective lubrication.

About 75 percent of women age 50 and older in the UCLA study said they had used a commercial vaginal lubricant in the past month. More than half of the participants in Kingsberg's study said they suffered from vaginal dryness.

Although Brown cautions that she's not a doctor and can't provide health care advice to women, she says her research still comes to a familiar conclusion about ensuring vaginal health: "Women need to talk with their health care providers."

Candy Sagon is a senior associate editor for health.

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