How to Treat Vulvar Dermatitis

If you have pain and itching in your genital area, you may have vulvar dermatitis. It might happen after a long bike ride or after sex. You may notice inflammation or burning if you switch laundry detergents or add a new softener to your wash.

Though vulvar dermatitis can cause irritation and even pain, it’s usually not serious. Home treatment may provide enough relief.

Here’s what you need to know about how to treat vulvar dermatitis.

What Is Vulvar Dermatitis?

Vulvar dermatitis is an irritation of the vulva’s skin. The vulva is the sensitive external portion of the female genitals. It includes the outer folds of skin (labia majora) and inner folds (labia minora).

Dermatitis is a general term that refers to any inflammation of the skin.

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Causes of Vulvar Dermatitis

Vulvar dermatitis occurs when something irritates the skin of the vulva. It can happen after prolonged exposure to heat and moisture or as a reaction to scented products. The vulva can become red, inflamed, and painful when exposed to anything that irritates the skin or causes an allergic reaction.

Specific causes of vulvar dermatitis include reactions to:

  • Astringents.
  • Baby powder.
  • Baby or adult moist wipes.
  • Bubble baths or bath salts.
  • Deodorants.
  • Douches.
  • Fabrics treated with chemicals.
  • Hemorrhoid preparations.
  • Laundry detergents and fabric softeners with perfumes.
  • Lotions.
  • Lubricants.
  • Panty liners.
  • Prolonged heat.
  • Scented soaps.
  • Spermicides.
  • Tight clothing that traps heat and moisture.
  • Underwear made from synthetic material.
  • Urine or feces from incontinence.
  • Wetness, such as from sitting for hours in a wet bathing suit or sweaty workout clothes.

Symptoms of Vulvar Dermatitis

Symptoms of vulvar dermatitis include:

  • Burning or stinging.
  • Dry, cracked skin.
  • Extreme itchiness.
  • Pain during sex.
  • Pain when urinating.
  • Pain when using tampons.
  • Raw, irritated skin.

How to Treat Vulvar Dermatitis at Home

Vulvar dermatitis can range from mild to severe. Fortunately, you can treat most cases of mild vulvar dermatitis at home.

Here are some ways to treat vulvar dermatitis at home

  • Apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly to protect the skin.
  • Don’t douche. Use powders or vaginal sprays anywhere in the genital area.
  • Don’t have sex until your skin has healed.
  • If itching interferes with sleep, take an over-the-counter (OTC) antihistamine according to directions. Antihistamines can help reduce itching.
  • Place cold compresses against the vulva to reduce itching.
  • Sleep without underwear.
  • Soak in a sitz bath of lukewarm water to soothe irritated skin.
  • Try not to scratch.
  • Wash your vulva with cool water. If you use soap, stick to unscented varieties. Pat the area dry without rubbing.
  • Wear loose, breathable clothing of natural fibers like cotton.
  • Can apply a thin layer of over-the-counter 1% hydrocortisone ointment.

When You Should See a Doctor for Vulvar Dermatitis

If your symptoms don’t improve (or they worsen) after a week or so of home care, call your doctor. You should also see your doctor if you have signs of vulvar dermatitis along with:

  • Fever.
  • Foul-smelling vaginal discharge.
  • Increased or new pain, warmth, swelling, or redness in your genital area.
  • Pain or burning when you urinate.
  • A rash that spreads.

You should tell your doctor about other skin problems, such as eczema or psoriasis. Make sure to mention any problems with your bladder or bowels, especially any form of incontinence. You should also tell them about any prescription or over-the-counter medicines you take.

Your doctor may prescribe anti-itch medications, steroid creams, or antihistamines to help reduce itching.

It’s important to follow all directions when taking medications for vulvar dermatitis. Have patience — it may take several weeks to feel better.

Conditions with symptoms similar to those of vulvar dermatitis

The symptoms of vulvar dermatitis can also signal other more serious health problems. That’s why seeing a doctor is important if symptoms don’t go away.

Health issues that produce similar symptoms to vulvar dermatitis include:

  • Lichen planus. This condition causes a rash of small bumps on the skin. On the vulva, it can cause raw, red patches that burn.
  • Lichen sclerosus. This condition causes thick white patches on the vulva. It’s more common in people with low estrogen levels, such as prepubescent girls and postmenopausal women.
  • Psoriasis. This chronic disease produces red, scaly patches, usually on the knees, elbows, and scalp. But psoriasis can also develop on the genitals, where it can cause intense itching.
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs). STIs can produce inflamed, sore skin. They may cause itching, burning, pain during sex or urination, and rashes on the vulva.
  • Vulvar cancer. Vulvar cancer is rare, but symptoms include pain and persistent itching.
  • Yeast infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 75% of all women will have a yeast infection during their lifetime. Signs of a yeast infection include abnormal vaginal discharge, pain during sex, vaginal itching and soreness, and pain when urinating.

Preventing Vulvar Dermatitis

If you’re prone to vulvar dermatitis, there are steps you can take to avoid an outbreak, such as:

  • Avoid fabric softeners, which can contain irritating perfumes.
  • Avoid tight pants, tights, thongs, and other close-fitting clothing.
  • Choose clothing — especially underwear — made from natural fabric. Cotton underwear is breathable and less likely to trap moisture and irritate the skin. You may even try going without underwear when you’re at home.
  • Don’t use a washcloth to cleanse your vulva; use plain water and your hands and fingers once daily. (If you use soap, choose a gentle, non-alkaline cleanser.)
  • Make sure your skin is dry before getting dressed.
  • Remove wet or sweaty clothing as soon as possible.
  • Shower as soon as possible after working out.
  • Use unscented laundry soap to wash clothing. You may also run an extra rinse cycle to make sure your clothing is free of laundry soap.
  • Use unscented panty liners.

MyHealth Alberta. Vulvar Dermatitis: Care Instructions. Link

National Eczema Society. Female genital eczema. Link

Harvard Health Publishing. Managing common vulvar skin conditions. Link

American Academy of Dermatology Association. 8 Reasons Your Groin Itches and How to Get Relief. Link

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Disorders of the Vulva: Common Causes of Vulvar Pain, Burning, and Itching. Link 

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaginal Candidiasis. Link 

MedlinePlus. Contact dermatitis. Link

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