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genital irritation in females

Genital irritation in females is any condition that causes discomfort in the female genitalia. The hymen or outer lips of the vagina and labia, the clitoris, and the vulva are parts of the external female genitalia. The internal female genitalia include the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries.

What is going on in the body? 
The female external genitalia has a rich blood supply. As a result, even minor conditions can cause irritation to the area. Irritation to the female genitalia can range from mild itching or discomfort to severe, intense pain. It may occur suddenly or last a long time.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition? 
When a female complains of irritation in the genitalia, the doctor will ask questions, including:
  • when the irritation started
  • whether the irritation is constant
  • if anything decreases the irritation or makes it worse
  • if there are any other symptoms, such as fever, vomiting, bloating, headache, itching, back pain, or flank pain
  • if there is any discharge or bleeding from the vagina and, if so, what colour and consistency it is
  • if there is any change in the menstrual cycle, if periods are regular, if there is any chance of pregnancy, or if she has gone through menopause
  • what medications, drugs, or herbs she takes, if any
  • what other medical problems she has, if any
What are the causes and risks of the condition? 
There are many causes of genital irritation, including:
  • chemical irritation to the lining of the genitals, such as from soaps, bubble bath, or laundry detergent
  • infection, such as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including gonorrhoea, chlamydia, HIV, and herpes
  • other infections, including vaginal yeast infections, urinary tract infections, pelvic inflammatory disease, and cervical infections
  • inflammation of the genitals, such as cervicitis or vaginitis
  • conditions causing increased vaginal discharge, such as erosion, which is an ulceration of the cervical lining
  • trauma, especially to the cervix, which may be caused by intercourse, tampon insertion, or speculum insertion during a pelvic examination
  • tumours, growths, or cancer
  • certain medications, including hormones, antibiotics, antihistamines
  • hormone changes or imbalances
  • autoimmune disorders, which are conditions in which a person's immune system attacks his or her own body for no apparent reason
  • tight-fitting clothing
  • inadequate lubrication prior to intercourse
  • traumatic sexual experiences, including rape
  • previous surgery, including D&C or hysterectomy
What can be done to prevent the condition? 
Protecting the genitalia from such conditions as trauma, irritating soaps, and exposure to STDs, may decrease the risk of irritation. Wearing properly fitted clothing and cotton-lined underwear may also help. A woman should seek early care for possible infections. Many causes can not be prevented.

How is the condition diagnosed? 
A thorough medical history and physical examination will be performed as the first step in diagnosing the cause of the genital irritation. The doctor may order tests such as:
  • a pelvic examination and Pap smear
  • blood tests
  • an examination of the abdomen called a laparoscopy
  • an examination of the vagina and cervix called a colposcopy
  • x-rays and scans, such as ultrasound of the pelvic organs
  • cultures of any discharge
  • biopsy
  • a D&C, which is a procedure in which the surgeon scrapes away part of the uterine lining
What are the long-term effects of the condition? 
Genital irritation caused from sensitivity to bubble bath may heal without any long-term effects. A person with a history of chronic irritation may need a low dose corticosteroid ointment for a long time. Some injuries or infections may lead to permanent damage or pain, and may cause infertility.

What are the risks to others? 
Genital irritation itself is not contagious and poses no risk to others. But, if the cause is an infection such as an STD, the infection may be contagious.

What are the treatments for the condition? 
When an injury occurs, an ice pack may be applied to reduce pain and swelling. A warm sitz bath may be soothing. Ointments or special foam may be prescribed to relieve pain, itching, and to treat infection. Antibiotics may also be prescribed for infections.

Those with cancer may need surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. Surgery may be needed for those who have damage to their genitalia.

What are the side effects of the treatments? 
Antibiotics may cause stomach upset, diarrhoea, or an allergic reaction. Surgery may pose a risk of bleeding, infection, and allergic reaction to anaesthesia.

What happens after treatment for the condition? 
A woman may not need further treatment for minor irritation. If she was treated for an STD, sexual partners should be notified.

How is the condition monitored? 
Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the doctor.

Author: Eileen McLaughlin, RN, BSN
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 12/06/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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