The vulva, quite often erroneously referred to as “vagina” or many other names, is the external part of the female genitalia. This complex organ is comprised of the mons pubis, labia majora, labia minora, clitoris, vestibule of the vagina, bulb of the vestibule and the Bartholin glands. The vulva is made up of mucous membranes, several glands, and highly innervated and sensitive skin and hair follicles. This makes it one of the most anatomically and physiologically intricate body parts.
Vulvar health is dependent on many aspects of a woman's health, including:
- The presence of urine or fecal incontinence
- Menopause and its changes
- Menstrual abnormalities
- Systemic or local dermatologic conditions
All of these can have a negative impact on the vulva. Vulvar disorders are usually reported to or noted by providers from various disciplines (e.g. dermatologists, gynecologists, urologists, primary care physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants). Unfortunately, many providers overlook the vulva, which is often seen as a conduit to the cervix, where the routine Pap smear is performed upon.
As a society, we still seem uncomfortable using the term vulva when referring to the female anatomy. In fact, most women are embarrassed to report their own vulvar problems and instead go to the pharmacy to find self-treatments that often cause more harm than good.
Why stigma can lead to vulvar issues
Patients are often embarrassed to report issues related to their vulva. Something as simple and annoying as a longstanding itch may not be discussed with a provider. This leads to potential oversight of an underlying skin condition or lesion that might have otherwise been treated.
As women’s health providers, we encourage all women to speak freely about their vulva and recommend every woman routinely check her vulva. You can do this using a mirror. If skin changes occur, you will be the first to notice.
Every vulva is unique and different. There is no ideal or perfect vulva. Therefore, it’s so important to pay attention to your vulva, as no one will know it better than you.
Listen to your body
Vulvar itching is one of many symptoms of vulvar disease. Also, burning, pain, a sense of fullness and sexual discomfort might all be caused by vulvar conditions that need medical attention. Some of these conditions can be potentially serious and require immediate treatment
Below is what you should know and do when you’re experiencing more than the occasional itch. Keep in mind that some itching from time to time is normal.
- Not every itch is yeast-related. In many cases, yeast may be the culprit. However, irritation from sweat, feces, soap, urine or any other irritant may also cause itching by triggering irritant dermatitis. Itching can also be caused by conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and lichen sclerosus. Even more unfortunate is that your itching may be the result of a secondary allergic reaction to a topical agent like Benzocaine, which is present in many over-the-counter medications that are advertised to treat itching.
- Avoid topical applications. Unless prescribed by a physician, stop any topical applications to your vulva. Keep it simple by washing with water only, and make sure to not over wash. You can apply a thin film of petroleum jelly for protection from irritants.
- Don’t scratch. Do your best to avoid scratching, as this might make itching worse. Wear cotton-only undergarments, and avoid tight clothing that might keep the area hot and moist.
- Consider bedtime routines. Try sleeping without underwear at night, especially during evenings when weather is hot and warm.
- Call for help. Lastly, if the itch is still not improving, make sure to contact your provider as soon as possible, and take pictures of any skin changes you notice prior to your visit. A picture is worth a thousand words.
Annual preventive visits with your women's health provider are good opportunities to address any feminine hygiene concerns you have and to check the vulva for any changes that may need treatment.Tarek Khalife, M.D., obstetrician and gynecologist, and Becky DeLuca, obstetrics and gynecology nurse practitioner, practice at Mayo Clinic Health System in New Prague.
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Tarek Khalife Tuesday, January 10, 2017
Thank you Mrs Muhammad for your comment. Your point is very well taken and we can not stress enough the importance of safe sex and sexuality education to the most vulnerable subgroup of patients, males and females alike. Even though a good proportion of vulvar complaints do present to our clinics because of concerns about sexually transmitted infections, we wanted to stress and increase awareness that not all vulvar symptoms are STI related, and that the stigma of a possible underlying STI etiology should not stop patients from seeking early help and treatment from a professional before venturing in unsafe self-treatment.
Barbara Muhammad Monday, January 09, 2017
It is my belief hygiene is so important to healthy lifestyle prior to engaging in sexual activity, it is so necessary to begin early having the discussions with your partner! My concern is related to whether we teach enough! evidence by my clinical experiences. Thus, by the time most young adults have their first appointment with their providers they are already engaged in risky sexual behavior, because hygiene need to a priority for many reasons for all people involved! So, are we doing a better job?