Female genital sores are bumps and lesions in or around the vagina. Some sores may be itchy, painful, or produce a discharge, while some may not cause any symptoms. Bumps or sores on the genitals may be due to certain skin disorders; however, 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 do not seek treatment because they are afraid or embarrassed; however, STIs affect all populations and can make a huge impact on public health. Women are especially at risk for developing serious long-term health complications as the result of untreated infections (CDC, 2011).
Any genital bumps or sores should be evaluated by a doctor to determine the cause and to prevent potentially dangerous medical complications.
Genital sores may appear as small, red or flesh-colored bumps and blisters. They may have no symptoms aside from their appearance and prevalence around the vaginal area. However, some female genital sores may be accompanied by a variety of symptoms:
- pain at the site
- pelvic pain
- persistent pain
- a general feeling ill feeling
A sore may also change in appearance and become crusty or larger in size.
Symptoms such as painful intercourse, increased or foul-smelling vaginal discharge and painful urination are also commonly associated with STIs.
The most common causes of female genital sores are sexually transmitted infections, which can be spread through oral, vaginal, and anal sex. Examples include:
- genital herpes
- genital warts
- chancroid (a bacterial disease)
- molluscum contagiosum (viral skin infection with pearly nodules)
STIs are not always the cause of genital sores. Certain chronic skin conditions may also produce sores and symptoms such as itching, burning, and pain, such as:
- vulvovaginitis (vulva and vaginal inflammation)
- contact dermatitis (sensitivity to chemicals or irritants)
- atopic dermatitis, 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. A pelvic exam will be conducted, and you will be asked about your medical history. Your doctor may also order tests to determine the cause, such as blood work and a culture of the sore. This involves taking a swab sample from the affected area and then testing the sample for the presence of bacteria.
Once the cause has been determined, your doctor will be able to tell you what treatment measures 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, however, you may find some relief through a sitz bath. This helps to relieve any pain and discomfort associated with the sores. This can be done at home by filling the bathtub with warm water that goes up to your hips. You may add a mild saline solution or baking soda to the water. While you can purchase small basins for sitz baths from a drugstore, you can also use a regular bathtub.
The exact form of treatment depends on the causes of genital sores. Topical and oral medications are generally used to treat the sores and relieve pain. Your doctor may prescribe:
- antiviral medications
- hydrocortisone, or other anti-itch drugs
Other genital sores don’t require treatment, but you may have them removed if they are bothersome. Examples are noncancerous cysts.
Practicing safe sex by using condoms with each sexual partner can help stop the spread of sexually transmitted infections that may cause genital sores. Women who are diagnosed with an STI should inform their sexual partner(s), who will also need testing and treatment to avoid reinfection, or 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 underlying 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. Talk to your doctor about long-term treatment options for these types of diseases to manage symptoms and help avoid outbreaks.
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