Bartholin cysts are common fluid-filled lumps that form near the opening of your vagina. When infected, they can become abscesses, which can have more severe symptoms and require different treatments.

Bartholin cysts and abscesses are common conditions that affect the Bartholin’s glands, which are located on either side of the vaginal opening. These glands are responsible for secreting fluid that lubricates the vagina.

A Bartholin cyst is a noninfected fluid-filled sac, while a Bartholin abscess is an infected and inflamed cyst filled with pus. While both conditions involve the Bartholin’s glands, each has distinct characteristics.

Read on to learn more about the difference between a Bartholin cyst and abscess, including possible treatment options and when to contact a doctor.

A Bartholin cyst is a noninfected fluid-filled sac that forms in one of the Bartholin’s glands near the vaginal opening. The Bartholin’s glands produce fluid that helps lubricate the vagina during sexual arousal and to prevent dryness.

Bartholin cysts are primarily caused by a blockage or obstruction in the ducts that drain the Bartholin’s glands, accumulating fluid. This blockage can be due to thickened mucus, skin debris, or trauma to the gland area.

Common symptoms of Bartholin cysts include:

  • painless swelling or lump near the vaginal opening
  • discomfort or pressure in the affected area
  • pain during sexual intercourse
  • difficulty walking or sitting comfortably

A Bartholin abscess is an infected and inflamed cyst that develops when a Bartholin’s gland becomes blocked and infected. This forms a painful, swollen lump filled with pus near the vaginal opening.

This blockage can occur due to thickened mucus, skin debris, or trauma. When the blockage occurs, bacteria that are usually present in the genital area, such as E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus, can enter the gland. This can lead to an infection that causes a pus-filled abscess to form.

Common symptoms of Bartholin abscesses include:

  • rapidly developing painful and swollen lump near the vaginal opening
  • redness and warmth in the affected area
  • significant pain and tenderness
  • difficulty with daily activities such as walking or sitting
  • fever and malaise

If you have a Bartholin cyst or abscess, contact a doctor if you experience:

  • increasing pain or discomfort
  • rapid enlargement or significant swelling
  • signs of infection, such as fever, redness, and warmth
  • difficulty with daily activities
  • recurrent cysts or abscesses

The treatment of Bartholin cysts and abscesses depends on their size, symptoms, and whether they’re infected.

Small Bartholin cysts that don’t cause symptoms may not require immediate treatment. A doctor may suggest observing the cyst and practicing self-care measures such as warm compresses and sitz baths to promote drainage and alleviate symptoms.

If you do experience symptoms, treatment options may include:

  • Incision and drainage: If the Bartholin cyst or abscess is painful, large, or infected, a doctor may perform a minor surgical procedure to drain the fluid or pus. This procedure, called incision and drainage, involves making a small incision in the cyst or abscess to allow the contents to be released.
  • Word catheter placement: After draining the cyst or abscess, a doctor may insert a small rubber tube called a Word catheter into the remaining cavity. The catheter helps keep the area open and allows for continuous drainage, reducing the chances of recurrence. It’s usually left in place for a few weeks.
  • Marsupialization: In cases of recurrent or persistent Bartholin cysts or abscesses, a doctor may recommend a surgical procedure called marsupialization. This involves stitching the edges of a large incision to the surrounding tissue to create a permanent opening, allowing proper draining.
  • Antibiotics: If there is a significant infection or sign of systemic illness, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection and prevent it from spreading.
  • Excision: In rare cases, such as when conservative measures have not been effective, a doctor may recommend surgical excision of the Bartholin gland, which involves removing the entire gland.

Here are some frequently asked questions about the difference between a Bartholin cyst and an abscess.

How long does it take for a Bartholin cyst to turn into an abscess?

How long it takes for a Bartholin cyst to develop into an abscess can vary, but it typically takes a few days to weeks for a cyst to become infected and progress into an abscess.

What can be mistaken for a Bartholin cyst or abscess?

Conditions that can be mistaken for a Bartholin cyst or abscess include vaginal cysts, inguinal hernias, lipomas, and genital warts. Consider speaking with a doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

Are Bartholin cysts hard or soft?

Bartholin cysts are typically soft to the touch. They are fluid-filled sacs that feel like a small lump or swelling near the vaginal opening.

Is a Bartholin cyst a sign of cancer?

Bartholin cysts are not a sign of cancer. They are typically benign (noncancerous) and are caused by a blockage in the Bartholin’s glands. Consider speaking with a doctor for a proper diagnosis if you have any concerns or if the cyst shows unusual characteristics.

Bartholin cysts and abscesses are common conditions that affect the Bartholin’s glands and can cause swelling and discomfort, among other symptoms; however, they may differ in terms of infection and severity.

Below is a comparison chart summarizing the differences between a Bartholin cyst and abscess.

Bartholin cystBartholin abscess
Causesblockage or obstruction of the gland ductsblockage, infection of the gland, bacterial entry
Symptomspainless lump, discomfort, pressurepainful, swollen lump, redness, warmth
Treatmentobservation, warm compresses, drainage, sitz baths, marsupializationincision and drainage, antibiotics if needed, Word catheter placement, excision (rare)