What is vulvitis?
Vulvitis is not a disease, but refers to the inflammation of the soft folds of skin on the outside of the female genitalia, the vulva. The irritation can be caused by infection, allergic reaction, or injury. The skin of the vulva is especially susceptible to irritation due to its moistness and warmth.
Who is affected by vulvitis?
Any woman of any age can be affected by vulvitis. Girls who have not yet reached puberty or post-menopausal women may be at higher risk of vulvitis. Their lower estrogen levels may make them more susceptible to the condition due to thinner, dryer vulvar tissues.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes vulvitis?
Vulvitis can be caused by many factors or irritants, including:
- The use of colored or perfumed toilet paper
- An allergic reaction to bubble bath or soap used to clean the genital area
- Use of vaginal sprays or douches
- Irritation by a chlorinated swimming pool or hot tub water
- Allergic reaction to spermicide
- Allergic reaction to sanitary napkins
- Wearing synthetic underwear or nylon pantyhose without a breathable cotton crotch
- Wearing a wet bathing suit for extended periods of time
- Bike or horseback riding
- Fungal or bacterial infections including scabies or pubic lice
- Skin conditions such as eczema or dermatitis
What are the symptoms of vulvitis?
The symptoms of vulvitis can include:
- Extreme and constant itching
- A burning sensation in the vulvar area
- Vaginal discharge
- Small cracks on the skin of the vulva
- Redness and swelling on the vulva and labia (lips of the vagina)
- Blisters on the vulva
- Scaly, thick, whitish patches on the vulva
The symptoms of vulvitis can also suggest other disorders or diseases of the genitals. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should consult your healthcare provider.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is vulvitis diagnosed?
Your doctor will begin with a medical history and full pelvic exam, looking for redness, blisters, or lesions that may indicate vulvitis. He or she may also check for vaginal discharge, which can be tested for infections.
The doctor may also check for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or collect a urine sample for analysis in order to rule out more serious causes of genital irritation.
Management and Treatment
How is vulvitis treated?
The first treatment is to immediately stop the use of any products that may be causing the irritation and to wear loose-fitting, breathable white cotton undergarments. Over-the-counter anti-itch products should be avoided, as they can make the condition worse, or last longer.
Your doctor may also prescribe the use of an over-the-counter cortisone ointment on the affected area several times a day. This can help reduce the irritation and itching.
Sitz baths and the use of a topical estrogen cream may also be prescribed to deal with the itching and other symptoms of vulvitis.
If these treatments do not reduce the irritation, further tests may be prescribed to rule out more serious underlying conditions such as vulvar cancer. Luckily, vulvar cancer is rare.
Can vulvitis be prevented?
Women can take several measures to prevent vulvitis. These include using gentle, unscented cleaning products on the genital area, and thoroughly drying the genitals after bathing. In fact, using wateronly is often sufficient to clean the genital area. It is also advisable to avoid the use of douches and other fragranced feminine products. Wearing breathable, loose fitting cotton undergarments can also help prevent vulvitis, as can changing into dry clothing soon after swimming and exercising.
Outlook / Prognosis
What is the prognosis for vulvitis?
Vulvitis that is not a symptom of an underlying disease is usually easily treated following diagnosis with the simple measures described in the previous sections. Itching and other symptoms can usually be relieved within weeks of diagnosis.