Your lady parts need to know this.

By Madeleine Burry
August 01, 2018

Crow's feet, stray grays, a little more jiggle in your triceps—if you haven't experienced these visible signs of aging just yet, you know they're coming. These changes are completely normal and nothing to be alarmed about.

But there's another body part that's aging along with your hair, skin, and muscles that you may not realize: your vagina. “Just like any other part of your body with skin, glands, and hair follicles, the appearance of the vulva and vagina is affected by the aging process and how well you care of it,” Sherry Ross, MD, a Santa Monica, California–based ob-gyn and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women's Intimate Health. Period, tells Health.

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It's not just the appearance of your vagina that transforms as you move through the decades. The way it feels day by day and how it functions during sex also changes, and these natural shifts can really throw you for a loop.

So you're not caught by surprise, we asked ob-gyns to tell us the age-related vaginal changes all women can expect, and what you can do about them to keep your sexual health and your sex life strong.

How your vagina changes in your 30s

The first dramatic changes happened when you hit puberty. Now that sex hormones are coursing through your system, your labia becomes enlarged, pubic hair develops, and your vagina begins producing daily discharge.

Your private parts change again after you have your first child, which for many women happens in their 30s. With each vaginal birth, “the pelvic floor muscles stretch, distend, and tear in the vagina to allow the baby’s head to come through," says Dr. Ross. "This tight space will never be quite the same over time." Subsequently, many women notice their vagina feels a little airier or roomier, and it may be slightly looser during sex, though this varies greatly from woman to woman. 

Pelvic-floor muscle tears don't just change the way your vagina feels. “The outside [of the vagina] can appear saggy or as if something’s bulging out,” Salena Zanotti, MD, an ob-gyn with the Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. “People may have redundant tissue that they notice as they get older. That’s just some of the change from childbirth and collective age on top of it." Meanwhile, fluctuations in estrogen postpartum can make many women feel dry down below, though this dryness is generally temporary.

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How your vagina changes in your 40s and 50s

After childbirth, the next milestone moment is perimenopause, the 5-10 year period before menopause. During perimenopause, your body starts producing less estrogen. “This is most common in the 40s, but for some women can be later," says Austin, Texas–based ob-gyn John Thoppil, MD. "Estrogen keeps vaginal collagen plump and moist and helps provide good blood flow to the area,” says Dr. Thoppil. 

Without estrogen flatlining, the vagina gets thinner and less elastic, and it produces less lubrication, says Dr. Zanotti. After menopause (the average age is 51), your vagina and clitoris can shrink, says Dr. Ross, and your labia will become less full, potentially changing in color and may even appear to sag. Vulva-vaginal atrophy can set in, and this can make sex painful.

How to keep your vagina healthy—and your sex life flourishing

The good news? These age-related changes don't have to make you feel out of sorts or leave you with an unfulfilling sex life. Here’s what ob-gyns recommend to slow the changes or ease symptoms when they do strike.

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Find a lube you love. This is for women approaching menopause or who have been through the change, as well as postpartum moms experiencing vaginal dryness due to temporary estrogen fluctuations. There's never been more options when it comes to personal lubricants, from drugstore brands such as KY and Astroglide to natural options like coconut oil. These can alleviate day-to-day dryness, as well as the pain and discomfort that dryness causes during sex.

Use topical estrogen. As perimenopause ramps up and menopause sets in, supplemental estrogen cream or an estrogen ring can help relieve dryness and keep vaginal tissue thicker and more elastic, says Dr. Zanotti. “Most women can safely supplement vaginal estrogen,” adds Dr. Thoppil, noting that a lower dose is absorbed through the body with these methods than via oral hormones. 

For some women (breast cancer survivors, for example), estrogen supplements of any kind—oral or local—aren’t recommended. Make sure you talk to your doctor about any risk factors before getting a prescription.

Continue having sex. The more you have sex, the easier it is to keep having sex. Think of your vagina as a “use it or lose it” body part. When you don’t have intercourse, explains Dr. Zanotti, the vagina becomes more rigid and vaginal tissue less elastic. This applies to women in their 40s experiencing perimenopause as well as women who are post-menopausal.

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Hydrate from the inside out. Drinking water keeps your skin hydrated, and it can do the same for your vagina as well. Being well-hydrated improves energy and circulation—it helps get more blood flow below the belt, which can make your vagina more sensitive. Also, consider cutting out alcohol, which dehydrates tissues. 

Stop smoking. As if you needed another reason to quit this habit, know that smoking can further lower estrogen levels—intensifying the impact of age-related drops in the hormone, says Dr. Thoppil.