Itching or irritation anywhere on the body can cause discomfort. But when it occurs in an area as sensitive as the vagina and vulva (the labia, clitoris, and vaginal opening), it can be especially uncomfortable. Most genital itching and irritation isn’t a major concern. But because they can be symptoms of an infection, it’s always a good idea to call your health care provider.
What causes vaginal itching, burning, and irritation?
There are several common causes of vaginal itching, burning, and irritation, including:
- Bacterial vaginosis. It’s normal to have a healthy mix of bacteria in the vagina. But the wrong bacteria growing there can lead to an infection. Besides itching, other symptoms that come with bacterial vaginosis are inflammation, burning, discharge, and a fishy-smelling odor.
- Sexually transmitted disease (STDs).Chlamydia, genital herpes, genital warts, trichomoniasis, gonorrhea and other organisms can cause vaginal/vulvar itching and irritation and other symptoms.
- Yeast infection (vaginal candidiasis). About three out of every four women will develop a yeast infection at some point in their lives. Yeast infections occur when the yeast, candida, grow excessively in the vagina and vulva. Pregnancy, intercourse, antibiotics, and a weakened immune system can all make women more likely to get a yeast infection. In addition to itching and irritation, a yeast infection will produce a thick, white, cheesy discharge.
- Menopause. The drop in estrogen production that occurs at the end of a woman’s reproductive years can cause the vaginal walls to thin and dry out. This can lead to itching and irritation. Thinning of the vaginal walls is also a problem in some women who breastfeed.
- Chemical irritants. A number of chemical substances, including creams, douches, condoms, contraceptive foams, laundry detergents, soaps, scented toilet paper, and fabric softeners can irritate the vagina and vulva.
- Lichen sclerosis . This is a rare condition that causes thin white patches to form on the skin, especially around the vulva. The patches can permanently scar the vaginal area. Postmenopausal women are most likely to develop this condition.
How are vaginal itching, burning, and irritation treated?
Vaginal irritation will often get better on its own. However, if the irritation continues, is severe, or comes back after treatment, call for an appointment with your doctor. The doctor can do a pelvic exam. The doctor will probably also take a sample of the discharge to find the source of the problem.
How vaginal discomfort is treated depends on what condition is causing the problem:
- Vaginosis and STDs are treated with antibiotics/antiparasitics.
- Yeast infections are treated with antifungal medications. They are inserted into the vagina in the form of creams, ointments, or suppositories, or they are taken orally. You can buy these medications over the counter in different doses — one-day, three-day, seven-day. However, if you’ve never been diagnosed with a yeast infection, see your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medication.
- Menopause-related itching may be treated with estrogen cream, tablets, or a vaginal moisturizer.
- Other types of itching and irritation respond to steroid creams or lotions, which reduce inflammation. A prescription-strength steroid cream can relieve the irritation of lichen sclerosis.
In young girls, it’s important to report any itching, burning, or irritation to a health care provider, because these symptoms can be signs of sexual abuse.
Are there home remedies for vaginal itching, burning, and irritation?
Here are a few tips for preventing and treating vaginal irritation at home:
- Avoid scented pads or toilet paper, creams, bubble bath, feminine sprays, and douches.
- Use water and a plain, unscented soap to regularly clean your external genital area. But don’t wash more than once a day. Doing so can increase dryness.
- Always wipe from front to back after having a bowel movement.
- Wear cotton panties (no synthetic fabrics), and change your underwear every day.
- Do not douche.
- Change the diapers of infant girls regularly.
- Use condoms during sexual intercourse to help prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
- If you are experiencing vaginal dryness, use a vaginal moisturizer. Apply a water-based lubricant (K-Y, Astroglide) before having sex.
- Avoid sexual intercourse until your symptoms improve.
Don’t scratch — you can further irritate the area.
- National Women’s Health Information Center: “Vaginal Yeast Infections."
- National Institute of Arthritis, and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: “Lichen Sclerosus."
- Parmet, S. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 2004.