The labia are known as the “lips” of the vagina. The labia majora is a fold of skin on the outside of the vaginal area, while the labia minora is the inner lip leading to the vagina. Their function is to protect the vagina and clitoris from irritation and injury.
It’s natural for the labia to vary in size — from woman to woman and even from one side of the labia to the other. But infections, allergies, cysts and other conditions can produce noticeable labia swelling and pain.
What are the symptoms?
Besides inflammation of the labia, other symptoms of problems with your labia and the vagina it surrounds may include:
- genital itching or burning
- discharge from the vaginal area
- a foul smell coming from the vagina
- a small bump on the labia
- pain when walking or sitting
What causes this?
Given the delicate tissue of the labia, it’s not surprising that both the labia majora and minora are susceptible to swelling. Some common causes include:
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 3 out of 4 women will have a yeast infection at some point during their lifetimes. Overgrowth of yeast — the most common culprit being Candida — can cause swelling, burning, and itchiness of the entire vaginal area, including the labia.
This overgrowth can be due to antibiotic use, pregnancy, diabetes, or oral contraceptive use. Some women may also experience a cottage-cheese-like discharge.
Much like a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis occurs when there is an overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina. This can occur because of douching, having multiple sex partners, or just normally having a low level of the “good” bacteria in your vagina, which allows the “bad” bacteria to take over.
Symptoms include a greenish, whitish, or grayish thin discharge that has a “fishy” smell and vaginal itching, although some women have no symptoms at all. Check out some home remedies for this condition.
According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trichomoniasis (“trich”) is a common sexually transmitted disease that currently affects 3.7 million people. It’s caused by a parasite and in 70 percent of people doesn’t result in symptoms. When symptoms do arise, they include swelling, itching, and burning of the vaginal region, painful urination, and an extremely fishy vaginal odor.
When your skin comes into contact with something it’s allergic to, it’s likely to swell. So when the labia are irritated by allergens like the perfumes in soap or detergents, latex in condoms, or certain fabrics in clothing, it’s not uncommon for redness and inflammation to occur.
About 2 percent of women (mostly in their 20s) will get Bartholin’s cysts. These cysts occur when the Bartholin glands, which lie just outside the vagina, become blocked. These glands secrete moisture, helping the vagina become lubricated for sex. Many women won’t know they have a cyst unless it becomes infected. When that occurs, the cyst can cause skin around the vagina and labia to become painful and tender.
Sex without enough lubrication
The act of sex involves a lot of friction, which can cause trauma to your labia and entire vaginal area unless it’s properly lubricated. Use this guide to find the best lubrication for you.
How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor (usually a gynecologist) will ask about your medical and sexual history as well as your symptoms and then do a physical exam. A swab or, less commonly, a tissue sample may be taken and sent to a lab to determine if you have an infection, and if so, whether it is bacterial, parasitic, or fungal in nature.
Your doctor will also look for any abnormalities, like a cyst. If there’s any suspicion of vaginal or vulvar cancer, your doctor may perform a biopsy of the tissue.
What are the treatment options?
Treatment will largely depend on what’s causing your labia to swell. If you have a yeast infection, your doctor may tell you to use over-the-counter (OTC) antifungal creams or prescribe one to you. Bacterial infections may require antibiotics.
Labia irritation from allergies or sex may respond to OTC or prescription hydrocortisone or steroid creams. A particularly problematic Bartholin’s cyst may need to be lanced and drained or even surgically removed.
Self-care and prevention
Try the following to help treat and prevent labia swelling:
- Apply a cool compress to the swollen area.
- If a cyst is causing swelling and pain, try taking several warm (not hot) baths a day and take OTC painkillers.
- Don’t douche. It can upset the normal balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in the vagina.
- Don’t wear tight clothing, including tight underwear or confining pantyhose. Tight clothing generates heat and limits airflow, allowing bacteria and fungi to grow.
- If you think you might be sensitive to them, stay away from perfumed detergents, soaps, and feminine products.
- If you’re allergic to latex or spermicide, talk to your doctor about other birth control methods.
- Refrain from sex if it’s painful.
- Use a lubricant to reduce friction during sex.
- Add yogurt (with live active cultures) and probiotics to your diet.
In addition, you may want to investigate herbal treatments. In one study, a vaginal cream made with garlic and thyme was as effective in relieving vaginal yeast infections as the commonly prescribed antifungal cream clotrimozole.
Tea tree oil, organic coconut oil, and oil of oregano may also be therapeutic, though this hasn’t been proven. Any of these herbal treatments may cause an itchy rash or other symptoms if you’re sensitive to them.
What’s the outlook?
Most cases of swollen labia aren’t serious. If the swelling is chronic, painful, or accompanied by other symptoms, such as a vaginal odor, bump, or discharge, definitely have it checked out by a doctor.
Swelling of the labia isn’t uncommon, and effective treatment is available. Most women will recover without any lasting consequences, although in some cases the swelling can recur.