Vaginal discomfort is a general term that refers to any condition that causes itchiness, irritability or pain in the vagina. There are numerous causes of vaginal discomfort, and most women will have at least one experience of this condition over the course of their lives.

The skin of the vulva is extremely delicate, making it vulnerable to a wide range of conditions.

Any itching, burning or discomfort of the vulva is often described as vulval irritation, which is relatively common in women of all ages. A small part of the vulva, or sometimes the entire vulva, can be affected.

Signs and symptoms to watch for include:

  • burning and/or itching
  • the feeling of crawling under the skin
  • redness and/or swelling
  • associated vaginal discomfort and/or discharge
  • skin cracking or splitting (fissuring)
  • whitening of skin (leukoplakia)
  • painful sex (dyspareunia)

Vulval irritation can be caused by many things, including:

  • an imbalance in the bacteria and microorganisms that naturally live inside the vagina (known as the vaginal microbiome)
  • sweating and/or discharge from the vagina
  • fungal, bacterial, or viral infections
  • Infections include:

    candidiasis/’thrush’ – a fungal/yeast infection of the vulva and vagina. Symptoms include itching, redness, swelling and a cottage cheese-like vaginal discharge

    trichomoniasis/‘trich’ – a sexually transmissible infection (STI). Common symptoms are itchiness and a smelly, green frothy discharge. Sex may be painful

    bacterial vaginosis – bacterial infection of the vagina that occurs when its normal balance of bacteria changes. Main symptoms are a thin, grey or white discharge and a strong fishy odor especially after sex

    genital herpes – a virus spread by skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral or anal sex. The first time it appears is usually the worst and symptoms may include painful ulcers, blisters, a rash, flu-like symptoms, vaginal discharge, and trouble passing urine. When it reappears, it is often less severe, but usually in the same area. Affected areas may include the vulva, inner thighs, buttocks, and the skin around the anus. Symptoms can be managed, but genital herpes does not always cause symptoms and therefore may go unnoticed and unknowingly spread.

Allergies/adverse reactions to products, such as:

  • Sanitary pads and tampons
  • Tight and/or synthetic clothing, tights or stockings, G-strings
  • Chlorine or wet, sandy swimwear that is left on
  • Perspiration and other bodily fluids
  • Soaps, bath, and hair products
  • Laundry detergent
  • Hair removal and bleaching products
  • Condoms, spermicides, and lubricants (you can buy non-latex condoms and lubricants made from other ingredients to avoid allergies)
  • Nail polish and/or fake nails, hand creams
  • Scented or colored toilet paper or wipes
  • Douches (using a vaginal wash or douche is never advised as it disrupts the normal vaginal microbiome)
  • Perfumed products such as ‘feminine hygiene’ sprays

    Some medications and local anesthetic

    Piercings– these may cause infections or localized reactions

    Ingrown hairs – common after hair removal. If you are prone to ingrown hairs, a gentle loofah to the area may help

    Bartholin glands cyst – these glands are located on either side of the lower part of the vaginal opening, towards the perineum, and produce lubricating fluid during sex. A gland may become blocked, causing a cyst or abscess to develop, leading to discomfort or pain

    Varicose veins – can develop in the vulva, particularly during pregnancy. They usually improve after childbirth, but they can be treated if they persist

    Hormonal changes – like the vagina, the vulva can become thinner, drier or more uncomfortable due to hormonal changes in a woman’s body, such as after having a baby, while breastfeeding or after menopause