If you have a vulva and you are familiar with how it feels, chances are you’ve at least once encountered something in that area that has given you pause. As in, “That wasn’t there before,” possibly followed by panic, depending on how prone to anxiety you are.
The good news is if what you discovered is a lump or bump hanging out around your vulva area in the form of a rounded bulge near your vaginal lips, it could be a Bartholin’s cyst. If this is the first time you’re hearing about the existence of Bartholin anything, you’re not alone.
“Most women are not even aware that they exist until this happens,” says Dr. Kyrin Dunston, an OB-GYN in Atlanta.
The Bartholin’s glands, which are essentially invisible, are located on either side of the opening of the vagina in the bottom corners of the vulva, and their job is to generate fluid that keeps the vulva lubricated during sex. If the ducts that supply the fluid get blocked, the fluid builds up, and that results in a cyst that’s noticeable, but usually not painful. The blockage is usually caused by excessive friction or rubbing the glands together, but also by infections (although it’s important to note that a Bartholin’s cyst is not an infection, although they can become infected) and by sexual stimulation.
Your doctor can assess the existence of a Bartholin’s cyst during a pelvic exam. They’re common occurrences, and the cysts usually go away without the need for medical intervention. To get rid of one, Dr. Aditi G. Jha, senior consulting physician at the online hospital JustDoc, recommends a warm-water soak with Epsom salts or coconut oils as well as avoiding friction or sex. A doctor might also prescribe warm compresses as well as over-the-counter painkillers.
Bartholin’s cysts can be tender, and while they don’t always get bigger, they can grow to the size of an orange. Some folks experience pain during intercourse, and in more serious cases, while walking and sitting.
Of course, if the cyst is causing you discomfort or pain (above a six on a scale of 10, says Jha), you have a fever or if there’s discharge and/or redness around your vulva, it’s definitely time to see a doctor since an abscess can result from an untreated infection. Your doctor can drain an infected Bartholin’s cyst by making an incision and inserting a catheter that stays in for 4 to 6 weeks, during which you proceed with your life as normal, but talk to your doctor about what it means for sex. In another procedure, an incision is created in the cyst and the doctor places strategic stitches that form a small pouch from which the cyst fluid drains (this is called marsupialization).
How can you tell the difference between a Bartholin’s gland cyst and a sexually transmitted infection?
“Distinguishing it from the other problems around the same area is simple if you know the anatomy of where these cysts are usually located,” says Jha.”Most STIs will come up with multiple bumps and often extend into the vagina as well. The cyst is usually not itchy. Also, these cysts are commonly pearly white in color in contrast to the rashes or bumps, which would be usually red.”
Bartholin’s cysts aren’t associated with STIs, but according to Sydney Ziverts, health and nutrition investigator at ConsumerSafety.org, bacteria that’s transmitted sexually can infect the Bartholin’s gland. “If you’re concerned about whether a cyst is due to a sexually transmitted disease, it’s best not to speculate and instead, visit your GYN where they can take a sample and send to a laboratory,” says Ziverts.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to prevent the occurrence of a Bartholin’s cyst, and they can come back after treatment. You’re more likely to develop one if you’re sexually active, haven’t been pregnant or have had just one pregnancy. Bartholin’s cysts are harmless unless they become infected, but again, don’t self-diagnose, and see your doctor if something is up, if for no other reason than to soothe your addled nerves. If you are super-anxious when it comes to visiting doctors, it can help to write down your questions and concerns ahead of time and to bring a supportive person with you to the appointment.