Skin care is important for your health. Dirt, sweat, and germs stick to your skin and encourage infections. But it takes more than washing your hands and face to stay healthy.
The vulva — or outer part of a woman's genitals — is especially vulnerable to irritation and infection. Even when you work hard to keep your vulva clean, hygiene products can cause severe irritation. This irritation is a form of contact dermatitis called vulvitis.
What Is Vulvitis?
Vulvitis is the inflammation of the labia majora and labia minora — the outer folds of the vulva and the parts of a woman's genitals that are outside her body, rather than inside. These can become inflamed through infection, injury, and allergic reaction.
Allergic Reactions, Irritants, and Contact Dermatitis
When vulvitis is caused by irritation or an allergy, it’s called contact dermatitis. The skin of your vulva becomes red, rashy, and itchy in reaction to a substance.
This rash is certainly uncomfortable — but you don’t have to worry about giving it to someone. It’s not contagious or life-threatening.
Contact dermatitis is only one cause of vulvitis. Vulvitis can have various other causes, symptoms, and treatments.
Symptoms of Vulvitis
Vulvitis symptoms depend on the cause. Symptoms can even indicate an underlying condition. Common symptoms of vulvitis include:
- Chronic itching (pruritis)
- Burning sensations
- Vaginal discharge
- Cracking skin
- Redness and swelling
- Scaly white patches
If your vulvitis is contact dermatitis, symptoms usually appear within a few hours of contact with an irritant or allergic trigger. The rash typically fades away between 2 and 4 weeks of diagnosis if you avoid the source of the rash.
Vulvitis resembles several other skin conditions. Many of them are also found on other areas of the body — but they can be hard to identify when they appear on the vulva.
Other conditions that look like vulvitis include:
Common Causes of Vulvitis
Since the vulva is a sensitive area, there are many potential causes for vulvitis. Some of the common, everyday causes include:
- A reaction to soap used to clean the vulva
- Vaginal douches
- Chlorine in pools or hot tubs
- Sanitary napkins
- Synthetic underwear or pantyhose without a breathable crotch
- Wearing a wet bathing suit for too long
- Frequent horseback or bike riding
Many of these causes aren’t immediate. A soap you’ve used for years may suddenly cause you to break out in a rash. Repeated irritation may eventually lead to vulvitis.
Also, underlying infections like scabies and pubic lice, herpes, eczema, dermatitis, and psoriasis can cause vulvitis.
Any woman can experience vulvitis. Some conditions that cause vulvitis are more common in prepubescent and postmenopausal women.
Complications. If left untreated, vulvitis rashes can become infected and develop worsening symptoms. The vulva is a main environment where bacteria and fungi grow — so early treatment is important.
How’s Vulvitis Diagnosed and Treated?
After a review of your medical history, your doctor may perform a pelvic exam. They’ll check for the symptoms of vulvitis, especially any severe symptoms like blisters or lesions.
If necessary, your doctor may perform other tests to narrow down the cause of your vulvitis. They may:
- Test any vaginal discharge for signs of infection.
- Check for sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Analyze a urine sample to rule out severe causes of irritation.
Treatment. The first thing is stop using irritating products — even if they did not cause your vulvitis. You'll heal sooner without added irritation. Your doctor will then help you develop a treatment plan.
Don’t take treatment into your own hands. Over-the-counter (OTC) antifungal or anti-itch creams can make vulvitis worse. Antifungal creams are the right treatment for a yeast infection — but they're not right for treating other causes of vulvitis.
Some ingredients in creams will irritate your skin even more. Avoid any self-treatment before your doctor prescribes a treatment plan.
Deep clean your vulva if you have discharge or scaly patches of skin. But, while it’s important to keep your skin clean, forceful scrubbing can worsen your irritation.
Use a gentle cleaning routine. Soak in lukewarm water (without a cleanser) to get rid of dirty residue and then pat dry. You can choose appropriate cleansers and care routines with the help of your doctor.
Can You Prevent Vulvitis?
You can avoid vulvitis with simple hygiene and lifestyle changes:
- Use unscented cleaning products, or only use water to clean your vulva
- Fully dry your vulva after cleaning
- Avoid scented feminine products
- Wear breathable cotton underwear
- Avoid wearing wet clothes for too long