HRT - Topical

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

See also: Vaginal Dryness (Atrophic Vaginitis) written for patients

It is well known that oestrogen deficiency of the menopause often causes significant effects on the vagina and bladder, leading to vaginal dryness, discomfort during sex and consequent detrimental effects on sexual interest, response, sexual function, relationships and quality of life, as well as bladder problems. Yet, symptoms are hugely under-reported and under-treated.

Surveys have shown that 45% to 63% of postmenopausal women have experienced vulvovaginal symptoms, most commonly vaginal dryness. However, many women do not seek professional help or advice regarding their symptoms.

The term genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM) is now usually used instead of vulvovaginal atrophy or atophic vaginitis.[1] 

Since the symptoms caused by GSM may have a profoundly negative impact on the quality of life of postmenopausal women, women should be made aware of these problems and treated with an appropriate effective treatment.[2] 

Symptoms may include:

  • Vaginal dryness, itching or burning.
  • Vaginal discharge.
  • Superficial dyspareunia.
  • Urinary symptoms and recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs).

The vulva and vagina typically appear thin, dry and pale.[3] 

Preparations containing oestrogen - topical or vaginal hormone replacement therapy (HRT) - are often used to alleviate this condition. They include:

  • Vaginal creams.
  • Slow-release vaginal tablets.
  • Vaginal rings.

The advantage of this route of administration is that oestrogen is delivered directly to oestrogen-depleted tissues with similar efficacy to oral oestrogen, thereby avoiding significant systemic absorption and consequent side-effects.

As drug absorption across the vaginal epithelium avoids the first pass effect, lower doses are required vaginally compared to orally to achieve equivalent plasma concentrations.

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  • There is good evidence for the efficacy of topical HRT in the treatment of menopausal atrophic vaginitis.[4] 
  • Vaginal symptoms are improved, vaginal atrophy and pH decrease and there is improved epithelial maturation with topical oestrogen preparations compared to placebo or non-hormonal gels.[5] 
  • The different preparations of topical HRT (creams, tablets and the estradiol vaginal ring) all appear equally effective for treating vaginal atrophy.
  • Topical HRT is sometimes used prior to prolapse repair surgery in postmenopausal women with evidence of epithelial atrophy.
  • Vaginal oestrogens can be really effective in patients with urinary urgency, frequency or nocturia, urinary incontinence and recurrent UTIs.[6] 
  • Urge incontinence may be improved by low-dose vaginal oestrogens.
  • Topical oestrogens can be used to treat labial adhesions in girls.

The only contra-indications to use of topical oestrogens are active breast cancer and also undiagnosed vaginal or uterine bleeding.[2] They are otherwise safe. The amount systemically absorbed is very low.[7] A year's supply of topical oestrogen is equivalent to having one tablet of standard HRT.


  • Some women (rarely) experience local irritation with the use of topical oestrogens.
  • The creams may damage latex condoms and diaphragms; women using these types of contraception should be advised to use either vaginal tablets or the vaginal ring.
  • Establish that there are no contra-indications to topical oestrogen therapy - if present, avoid prescribing topical oestrogens or seek specialist advice.
  • Use the lowest effective dose to minimise systemic absorption - eg, creams daily for the first two weeks and then reducing to twice weekly.
  • Use preparations that have low systemic bioavailability. Efficacy of creams, tablets and vaginal rings is similar.
  • Women's individual preference for type of preparation needs to be taken into account. It is common to have more vaginal discharge with creams, which may be an advantageous side-effect in sexually active women.
  • There is no evidence that topical oestrogen causes endometrial proliferation after long-term use.[2] 
  • Low-dose topical oestrogen does not therefore need to be given with systemic progestogens.
  • Most women will have relief of their symptoms after about three weeks of treatment. Maximal benefit usually occurs after 1-3 months but may take up to a year.
  • Vaginal oestrogen should be offered to women with symptoms (including those on systemic HRT) and then continued for as long as needed to relieve these symptoms.[8] 
  • The following should be explained to women:[8] :
    • Symptoms often return when the treatment is stopped.
    • Adverse effects from using vaginal oestrogen are very rare.
    • Any unscheduled bleeding should be reported to their GP.

If symptoms have not improved with hormonal treatment, then another underlying cause of for the symptoms should be considered (eg, dermatitis, vulvodynia).

Estriol-containing products
  • Gynest® 0.01% intravaginal cream (80 g with applicator).
  • Ovestin® 0.1% intravaginal cream (15 g with applicator).
Estradiol-containing products
  • Vagifem® 10 microgram vaginal tablets (24-applicator pack).
  • Estring® vaginal ring (releases approximately 7.5 micrograms estradiol/24 hours) - insert high into the vagina and wear continuously. Replace every three months.
  • Non-hormonal moisturisers are a beneficial alternative for those with few or minor atrophy-related symptoms.[6]
  • Vaginal lubricants if the main symptoms are pain due to dryness on intercourse.
  • Bioadhesive, non-hormonal preparations, such as Replens® or Sylk®.
  • Systemic HRT should be considered if flushing and night sweats are also present.
  • Systemic HRT fails to resolve vaginal symptoms in 10% to 15% of women and additional vaginal oestrogen may then be needed.[9] 

Further reading & references

  1. Portman DJ, Gass ML; Genitourinary syndrome of menopause: new terminology for vulvovaginal atrophy from the International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health and the North American Menopause Society. Menopause. 2014 Oct;21(10):1063-8. doi: 10.1097/GME.0000000000000329.
  2. Kim HK, Kang SY, Chung YJ, et al; The Recent Review of the Genitourinary Syndrome of Menopause. J Menopausal Med. 2015 Aug;21(2):65-71. doi: 10.6118/jmm.2015.21.2.65. Epub 2015 Aug 28.
  3. Weber MA, Limpens J, Roovers JP; Assessment of vaginal atrophy: a review. Int Urogynecol J. 2015 Jan;26(1):15-28. doi: 10.1007/s00192-014-2464-0. Epub 2014 Jul 22.
  4. Calleja-Agius J, Brincat MP; The urogenital system and the menopause. Climacteric. 2015 Oct;18 Suppl 1:18-22. doi: 10.3109/13697137.2015.1078206.
  5. Edwards D, Panay N; Treating vulvovaginal atrophy/genitourinary syndrome of menopause: how important is vaginal lubricant and moisturizer composition? Climacteric. 2015 Dec 26:1-11.
  6. Rahn DD, Carberry C, Sanses TV, et al; Vaginal estrogen for genitourinary syndrome of menopause: a systematic review. Obstet Gynecol. 2014 Dec;124(6):1147-56. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000000526.
  7. Santen RJ; Vaginal administration of estradiol: effects of dose, preparation and timing on plasma estradiol levels. Climacteric. 2015 Apr;18(2):121-34. doi: 10.3109/13697137.2014.947254. Epub 2014 Oct 18.
  8. Menopause: diagnosis and management; NICE Guidelines (Nov 2015)
  9. No authors listed; Management of symptomatic vulvovaginal atrophy: 2013 position statement of The North American Menopause Society. Menopause. 2013 Sep;20(9):888-902; quiz 903-4. doi: 10.1097/GME.0b013e3182a122c2.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Chloe Borton
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Prof Cathy Jackson
Document ID:
473 (v7)
Last Checked:
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