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Vulvar Swelling: Identifying Causes and Treatment

Vulvar Swelling: Identifying Causes and Treatment

What is vulvar swelling?

First, it is important to define what the vulva is. Many people interchange the words vulva and vagina, however, they are not the same. The vulva is a collective term for the parts of the female genitalia that are seen from the outside. This includes structures such as the mons pubis, labia, and clitoris. On the other hand, the vagina is the inner canal that leads to the uterus. Occasionally, the vulva can become swollen (vulvitis). While most cases are harmless, it may also indicate severe illnesses. Vulvar swelling can either be generalized or present in a specific area.

Generalized swelling is also referred to as edema. Edema occurs when there is excess fluid in the body’s tissues. As a result, the skin becomes red and swollen. Edema may be due to allergic reactions and exposure to irritants. Other times, it may be a symptom of an infection, such as yeast infection. On the other hand, defined areas of vulvar swelling may be caused by cysts or tumors.

What are the symptoms of vulvar swelling?

In general, vulvar swelling is easily treated. However, you should also look out for signs of infection, especially when the swelling is accompanied by severe pain and discomfort.

The most common symptoms accompanying vulvar swelling are:

Swelling can also be accompanied by symptoms that are less common. These include:

  • High fever
  • Abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • Abdominal and pelvic pain
  • Fatigue

When should I see my doctor?

Vulvar swelling is not usually a cause of concern. In most cases, it goes away on its own or is easily treated. However, it may also indicate a serious health condition. Seek medical help when the symptoms become too painful, unbearable, or if it comes back even after treatment. Anyone who experiences a swollen vulva should also look out for signs of infection, such as high fever and fatigue.

What causes vulvar swelling?

Vulvar swelling may have multiple causes. The following are possible causes of vulvar swelling, along with corresponding treatment options:

Irritants

The vaginal area is a sensitive part of the body. It may react adversely once it comes in contact with certain products, such as personal care items. The chemicals and ingredients contained in these products may trigger an allergic reaction. These may cause the vagina to swell. Unfortunately, irritants and allergens are common ingredients used in products such as:

  • Laundry detergents
  • Soaps
  • Perfumes
  • Scented toilet paper
  • Lubricants
  • Vaginal sprays and douches
  • Tampons and pads
  • Vaginal suppositories
  • Latex condoms

Wearing tight clothing and ill-fitting undergarments can also cause vulvar swelling. For example, lace underwear can be itchy, thus can irritate the skin. Thongs and G-strings cannot fully cover the labia. This may cause unnecessary friction that leads to swelling.

Treatment: The easiest way to prevent this is to avoid the irritant itself. If you notice an unusual reaction from a new product, stop using it. Opt to use plain water and soap to wash your genitals since scented ones can cause irritation. Moreover, choose clothes or undergarments made from loose fabrics, such as cotton. This will prevent heat moisture from getting trapped in your genitals, leading to infection. It helps to consult with a dermatologist in case the irritant cannot be identified.

Sexual intercourse

Arousal itself causes some swelling (engorgement) of the labia and clitoris due to increased blood flow. This is characteristic of the first (excitement) phase of the sexual response cycle. The swelling to the area goes down to normal during the last (resolution) phase.

While the vagina and surrounding glands release lubrication during the excitement phase, some women may experience vaginal dryness. Lack of lubrication or prolonged intercourse can cause friction, irritation, and even bruising. This makes sexual activity uncomfortable or painful and the vulva may swell.

Treatment: Over-the counter pills or anti-inflammatory drugs can help relieve pain, along with the swelling. Ibuprofen is an example of a pain killer you can buy. To reduce unnecessary friction during intercourse, engage in foreplay more or use lubricant products.

Infection

Vulvar swelling may also indicate problems around or within the vagina. This is most likely due to an infection by bacteria or yeast, including:

  • Cellulitis: This occurs when a cut becomes infected by bacteria, especially during prolonged treatment. The bacteria affects the inner layers of the skin causing it to become red and swollen.
  • Yeast infection: A swollen vagina is one of the main symptoms of yeast infection. Yeast infection occurs when there is an overgrowth of Candida albicans, a type of fungus which affects the vagina’s environment. It is a common condition affecting 75% of women once at least once in their lives.
  • Bacterial vaginosis (BV): This condition is caused by an overgrowth of bad bacteria in the vagina. It disrupts the normal balance of your vaginal pH. Women ages 14 to 49 years old are likely to experience this at 29.2% prevalence. Apart from vaginal swelling, BV also causes foul vaginal odor and thick discharge.
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs): These include gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis. Many cases have no obvious symptoms or are asymptomatic. However, vaginal swelling is prevalent, along with discomfort in urination and bleeding.

Treatment: To prevent the further spread of bacteria, it is important to keep the vaginal area clean and dry. You might also want to get checked by a doctor for a more accurate treatment. For cellulitis and bacterial vaginosis, your doctor may recommend antibiotics to speed up recovery. Yeast infections can be treated with antifungal medications. If you suspect that you or your partner has an STI, get tested immediately.

Pregnancy

Vulvar swelling is normal during pregnancy. This is due to the added pressure on the pelvis and nearby blood vessels as the fetus grows. As a result, there is fluid retention and swelling.

Treatment: Improve blood circulation by lying down or elevating your feet frequently throughout the day. You may also opt to wear compression clothing to relieve vulvar swelling. If symptoms persist, consult with your doctor about safe medications.

What increases my risk of vulvar swelling?

There are many risk factors for vulvar swelling, including:

  • Use of scented personal care products
  • Douching or over-cleansing
  • Poor hygiene
  • Wearing tight and ill-fitting clothing
  • Engaging in rough sexual intercourse
  • Unprotected sex
  • Vaginal trauma
  • Insertion of foreign objects in the vagina
  • History of eczema, dermatitis, or allergies

How is vulvar swelling diagnosed?

Vulvar swelling can easily be diagnosed with your symptoms alone. Your doctor will ask for your medical history, as well as sexual habits to help identify possible contributing factors to the swelling. Moreover, there are a couple of tests your doctor may recommend to rule out infections and other health complications. These include:

  • Physical exam: This is to check for injuries, swelling, and other visible changes on the vagina’s surrounding areas
  • Vaginal or vulvar swab: This is used when the swelling is accompanied by abdominal pain, bleeding, and unusual discharge. Samples taken test for potential sexually-transmitted diseases or infections.
  • Biopsy: A sample of tissue is collected from the vagina to determine the cause of swelling. This is also done if lumps suddenly appear along the vaginal walls.
  • Discharge analysis: A sample of vaginal discharge is collected for evaluation.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

Treatment for vulvar swelling depends on the cause. If the cause is an infection, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics or antifungal medications. Surgical intervention is necessary for the removal of cysts and lumps.

Apart from these, observing proper hygiene is one of the most effective ways to manage or prevent vaginal infections and vulvar swelling. Frequently, vulvar swelling is due to an irritant. It is best to keep your genitals dry and clean. Avoid scented products that may irritate your skin, including personal care items.

There are also home remedies you can try for a swollen vulva:

  • Ice packs: Apply ice packs or cold compress on affected areas to relieve pain and reduce swelling.
  • Probiotics: Studies show that probiotics are effective in the treatment of infections such as bacterial vaginosis. Probiotic-rich food include yogurt and kimchi.
  • Sitz bath: This is done by sitting in a warm, shallow bath to relieve pain in your genitals.
  • Apple cider vinegar: This is a popular remedy for when you have a yeast infection. The acidic component of vinegar can kill harmful microorganisms, including yeast. Consider adding half a cup of apple cider vinegar to your bath water.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Key takeaways

In summary, vulvar swelling is not usually a cause of concern. In most cases, it resolves on its own. Maintaining proper hygiene and practicing safe sex are some of the most effective ways to manage or prevent vulvar swelling. However, if swelling is accompanied by abnormal discharge, pain, or bleeding, it would be best to talk to your doctor or gynecologist for treatment.

Learn more about Women’s Health here.

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Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

Disorders of the Vulva: Common Causes of Vulvar Pain, Burning, and Itching https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/disorders-of-the-vulva-common-causes-of-vulvar-pain-burning-and-itching Accessed April 9, 2021
Vulval & vaginal irritation https://www.jeanhailes.org.au/health-a-z/vulva-vagina-ovaries-uterus/vulva-vaginal-irritation Accessed April 9, 2021
Managing common vulvar skin conditions https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/managing_common_vulvar_skin_conditions Accessed April 9, 2021
Contact dermatitis of the vulva https://uihc.org/health-topics/contact-dermatitis-vulva Accessed April 9, 2021
Phases of the Sexual Response Cycle https://scholar.valpo.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1061&context=psych_fac_pub Accessed April 9, 2021

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Written by Mary Rani Cadiz, M.D. Updated Apr 09
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