Guess what ladies? That discomfort ‘down there’… it’s more common than you might think. In fact, most women will experience some kind of vulval irritation during their lifetime.
But when our most sensitive area starts to itch, burn or hurt, our distress can range beyond the physical. Many women avoid getting medical advice due to embarrassment, suffering in silence sometimes for years.
Even if the prospect of a physical examination causes you some anxiety, it’s vital to get problems checked out. Sometimes what starts as a minor irritation can become bigger (or be more serious than you realised).
Left untreated, many vulval conditions can make life pretty miserable. Depression, anxiety, body image issues, and sexual problems can all result from the symptoms some conditions produce.
So if you’re experiencing discomfort that just won’t go away, seeking help does not make you neurotic – there is always a cause, even if it’s hard to find.
Vulval discomfort can take a variety of forms
At our North Brisbane gynaecological practices, our patients use a variety of terms to describe their symptoms:
Any of the above symptoms do not necessarily mean any particular diagnosis. For example, usually women believe a genital itch is simply vaginal thrush, and self-medicate with a chemist-bought solution. But thrush, while being the most well-known genital issue among women, is not always the culprit.
Common vulval conditions
There are many conditions that can affect your vulva, which can be loosely categorised as follows:
Skin issues – Conditions such as lichen sclerosis, lichen planus, and dermatitis fall into this category. Generally causing itch, irritation, redness and scaly patches, or even split skin, these issues are common and there are a range of treatments available to ease symptoms.
Infections – Thrush is a common infection many women will experience at least once in their lifetime. It commonly causes itching and discomfort along with a thick discharge. Additionally, sexually transmitted infections such as genital herpes can cause blistering and ulceration of infected skin. Ouch!
Chronic pain – Some conditions such as vulvodynia or vestibulodynia can cause pain in and around the vulva that’s often described as burning, tearing, stabbing or feeling raw. Although sometimes an obvious cause is not evident, there are treatments available to help you manage these conditions.
Cancerous conditions – Most cases of vulval cancer are attributed to squamous cell carcinoma which originates in skin cells. Less common cancerous conditions of the vulva include melanoma, sarcoma, and adenocarcinoma.
Although vulval cancer is not very common (it affects around 300 Australian women each year), as with all cancers, the sooner it is caught the better.
When should I seek help?
Vulval symptoms are not ‘all in your head’ – any depression, anxiety, or sexual dysfunction you experience are by-products of your condition, not the cause. It’s not normal to be uncomfortable or in pain around your vulva – it is a sign there’s something that needs to be addressed.
Whether your symptoms involve itching and burning, soreness and pain, swelling, lumps and ulcers, or maybe an unusual discharge, it’s important to find the cause and begin treatment.
How are vulval conditions diagnosed?
A number of tests can be used to determine the cause of your issue. Typically your gynaecologist will discuss your medical history and symptoms, and perform a gentle physical examination.
Swab and blood tests may be used to check for infections. If a suspicious lump or nodule exists, a biopsy may sometimes be recommended.
Where to get further advice
If you’re experiencing vulval discomfort, or have noticed a change in the appearance of your vulva, talk to a medical professional. Any mental discomfort this may cause you is surely far less than the physical discomfort you’re going through!
At Northside Gynaecology we understand the sensitive nature of vulval conditions, and our caring female gynaecologists are dedicated to compassionate care. Our practice is located in three convenient Brisbane locations – Kedron, North Lakes and Caboolture.