Vulvar ulcers are sores that affect the vulva, which is the external part of the female genitalia. These sores may be very painful, or they may not hurt at all. Most vulvar ulcers are caused by sexually transmitted diseases ( STDs). Here’s what you need to know about how they can affect your health.
Causes of Vulvar Ulcers
A vulvar ulcer is any type of open sore that appears on the vulva. These ulcers may form as rashes or bumps that open up, or as spreading breaks in the skin. Either way, they expose deeper layers of tissue to the air and they are frequently uncomfortable.
If you have vulvar ulcers, your doctor will want to perform some tests to find the cause. A vulvar ulcer can develop because of:
STDs. Any sexually transmitted disease or infection can cause genital sores if it’s left untreated. The most common STDs that lead to genital lesions include herpes, syphilis, and chlamydia. Some people develop these lesions from HIV infections as well.
Yeast infections. A fungal infection in the vulva is also known as a yeast infection. These infections are not necessarily caused by sexual contact. They can cause lesions, itching, burning sensations, and vaginal discharge.
Viruses. Any virus that causes lesions on the skin can also affect your vulva. For example, the chickenpox, herpes, and shingles virus can cause vulvar ulcers along with lesions on the rest of your skin.
Skin reactions. The skin of the vulva is delicate. Products that don’t irritate the rest of your skin can cause unpleasant reactions around your genitals. If you recently started using a new product on your genitals, that may be the cause.
Trauma. Scratching or rubbing at your vulva too often can irritate the skin to the point of ulcers. Parasites like genital lice can bite your skin, making it itchy and leading to the development of ulcers.
Autoimmune illnesses. If a disease causes inflammation or autoimmune responses, it can sometimes lead to skin reactions. These reactions can also affect your genitals, leading to lesions and ulcers.
Complications of Vulvar Ulcers
Any ulcer on your genitals can lead to more health problems if you don’t take care of it. Untreated vulvar ulcers can lead to problems like:
- Additional STDs
Furthermore, if your ulcers are caused by an underlying condition, you may also experience other problems. For example, STDs can cause problems if you get pregnant. Specific STDs like syphilis can also lead to permanent consequences like nerve damage and heart problems.
Treating Vulvar Ulcers
Since there are many causes of vulvar sores, there are many potential treatments. If your ulcers are caused by trauma, then they may heal on their own. Otherwise, you may need to get treatment to avoid infections.
STD treatments. If your ulcers are caused by an STD, treating that disease will usually resolve the ulcers as well. Since there are many types of STDs, you should talk to your doctor about getting the right treatment. Syphilis and chlamydia are treated with antibiotics, while herpes and HIV are viruses and require antiviral agents.
Antihistamines. Ulcers that are caused by skin reactions or autoimmune problems can sometimes be treated with antihistamines. These medications help calm your immune response to allergenic substances so your body stops creating the ulcers.
Antifungal agents. Yeast infections require specific antifungal treatment. Some treatments for yeast infections are available over the counter. However, if you have chronic yeast infections that lead to ulcers, you should ask your doctor about prescription antifungal treatments.
Steroids. For moderate to severe ulcers not caused by an STD, a combination of oral or topical steroids and antibiotics may be used.
While you’re treating the underlying cause, you can also take steps to reduce any discomfort you feel. Home solutions for vulvar ulcer discomfort include:
- Anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen
- Topical anesthetics like lidocaine
- Barrier ointments like petroleum jelly
- Cool compresses
Preventing Vulvar Ulcers
The easiest way to avoid vulvar ulcers is to practice good sexual hygiene. Since most vulvar ulcers are caused by STIs, avoiding these infections or treating them early can help you prevent lesions entirely. Easy ways to avoid symptoms of an STD include:
- Using barrier protection during sexual activity like condoms and dental dams
- Getting vaccinated against HPV
- Getting tested for STDs regularly
- Asking sexual partners about their STD status
You can also practice general hygiene to keep your vulva clean and healthy. You can avoid many non-STI vulvar lesions by:
- Regularly washing your vulva with soap and water
- Avoiding the use of scented or harsh products around your genitals
- Staying hydrated
- Urinating after sex
- Avoiding tight clothing