Female genital sores are bumps and lesions in or around the vagina. Some sores may be itchy, painful, tender, or produce a discharge, but some may not cause any symptoms. Bumps or sores on the genitals may be due to certain skin disorders, but they are most often symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), STIs are a hidden epidemic in the United States. People often don’t seek treatment because they are too afraid or embarrassed. However, STIs affect all populations and can make a huge impact on public health. Young women are especially at risk for developing serious long-term health complications as a result of untreated infections, according to the CDC.
A doctor should evaluate any genital bumps or sores to determine the cause and prevent potentially dangerous medical complications. It’s also important to find out if the cause is an STI to avoid spreading it to sexual partners.
Genital sores may appear as small, red or flesh-colored bumps and blisters. Sores may also change appearance and become crusty or larger, or there may be no other symptoms aside from their appearance and prevalence around the vaginal area. However, some female genital sores may be accompanied by symptoms, such as:
- pain at the site
- pelvic pain
- persistent pain
- discomfort when urinating
STIs, in general, are also associated with symptoms such as painful intercourse, discomfort when urinating, and increased or foul-smelling vaginal discharge.
The most common causes of female genital sores are STIs, which can be spread through oral, vaginal, or anal sex. STIs can also be spread through the sharing of sex toys. Examples of STIs that can cause female genital sores include:
- genital herpes
- genital warts
- chancroid (a bacterial disease)
- molluscum contagiosum (a viral skin infection with pearly nodules)
STIs are not always the cause of genital sores. There are some chronic skin conditions that may produce sores and symptoms such as itching, burning, and pain. Examples of such conditions include:
- vulvovaginitis (an inflammation of the vulva and vagina)
- contact dermatitis (a sensitivity to chemicals or irritants)
- atopic dermatitis (an inflammation of the skin that is often caused by allergies)
Other causes of genital sores may include skin cancer or noncancerous cysts.
A physical examination can help determine the cause of female genital sores. Your doctor will perform a pelvic exam and ask you about your medical history. He or she may also order tests to determine the cause, such as blood work and a culture of the sore. A culture involves taking a swab sample from the affected area and testing the sample for the presence of bacteria.
Once the cause has been determined, your doctor will be able to tell you what treatment you’ll need to help relieve the sores.
Any female genital sores should be checked out by a doctor. While you’re waiting for your appointment, a sitz bath can help relieve any pain and discomfort. You can make a sitz bath at home by filling the bathtub with warm water that goes up to your hips when you are seated. You may then add a mild saline solution or baking soda to the water. You can also purchase a small basin for a sitz bath from a drugstore and use it instead of a bathtub.
The exact form of treatment depends on the causes of genital sores. Topical and oral medications are used to treat the sores and relieve pain. Your doctor may prescribe:
- antiviral medications
- pain relievers
- hydrocortisone or other anti-itch drugs
Other genital sores don’t require treatment, but you may have them removed if they’re bothersome. An example of a sore that doesn’t require treatment is a noncancerous cyst.
Practicing safe sex by using condoms with each sexual partner can help stop the spread of STIs that may cause genital sores. Women who have been diagnosed with an STI should tell their sexual partners, who will also need testing and treatment to avoid reinfection and spreading the disease to another partner. Additionally, women who have been diagnosed with an STI should avoid all sexual contact until after they complete treatment.
Genital sores due to skin conditions or allergic reactions may be more difficult to prevent. Avoid known irritants, such as abrasive soaps or strong fragrances.
The long-term outlook for female genital sores depends on the cause. In most cases, sores can be cured with treatment. However, sores that are due to genital herpes or a chronic skin condition may recur.
Your outlook also depends on how quickly you seek treatment. Untreated STIs can cause serious health complications for women, including:
- pelvic inflammatory disease
- scarring of the reproductive organs
- increased risk for ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening condition where pregnancy occurs outside of the womb
Talk to your doctor about long-term treatment options for these types of diseases to manage symptoms, prevent complications, and help avoid outbreaks.