You know what’s worse than an itchy vagina? Not knowing what’s causing it.

That’s not to say that vaginal itching isn’t something to have concerns about it, because it can occasionally be a sign of serious issues like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and even (rarely) vulvar cancer. But the reality is that vaginal itching is pretty common and usually caused by less serious things like irritating substances or hormonal changes.

Before getting into what can cause an itchy vagina, it’s worth going over some terminology.

A lot of people say vagina when they really mean vulva. Your vagina is actually just one part of your vulva — specifically the inside part. The vulva is the part of your genitals that’s on the outside of your body, like your labia, clitoris, urethra, and vaginal opening.

In this article, we’re talking about itching that affects either the vagina, vulva, or both.

Let’s dive into the many possible causes of an itchy vagina or vulva and how to get relief.

Irritants

Chemical irritants, like those found in everyday products that come in contact with the vagina and vulva, can trigger an allergic reaction, known as contact dermatitis. We’re talking alcohol, dyes, fragrances, etc.

If an irritant is to blame, your vulva and vagina might be itchy, red, and sore.

Products that often contain such irritants include:

  • soaps, shower gels, and bubble baths
  • feminine sprays
  • douches
  • topical contraceptives, like spermicide and Phexxi
  • creams, lotions, and ointments
  • detergents
  • fabric softeners
  • scented toilet paper
  • scented pads and liners

If you experience incontinence, urine can also cause itching and irritation.

Skin conditions

Some skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis, can cause redness and itching in the genital region.

Eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, is a rash that primarily occurs in people with asthma or allergies. The rash is reddish and itchy with a scaly texture. It may spread to the vulva in some people with eczema.

Psoriasis is a common skin condition that causes scaly, itchy, red patches to form along the scalp and joints. At times, outbreaks of these symptoms can occur on the vulva as well.

Yeast infection

Yeast is a naturally occurring fungus that’s normally present in the vagina. It usually doesn’t cause problems, but when its growth goes unchecked, an uncomfortable infection — aka, vaginal yeast infection — can result.

The overgrowth of yeast in the vagina can result in uncomfortable symptoms, including itching, burning, and thick, whitish discharge that may or may not smell, well, yeasty, like a fresh sourdough loaf.

If you’ve recently taken antibiotics, they may be to blame, as these can destroy good bacteria along with the bad. (FYI, good bacteria is what keeps yeast in check.)

Pregnancy, stress, uncontrolled diabetes, and a hormonal imbalance before your period can also cause yeast infections.

Bacterial vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis (BV) is another potential reason for vaginal itching.

Like a vaginal yeast infection, BV is triggered by an imbalance between naturally occurring good and bad bacteria in the vagina.

The condition doesn’t always cause symptoms. When symptoms do appear, they typically include vaginal itching and an abnormal, fishy-smelling discharge. The discharge may be thin and dull gray or white. It can also be foamy.

STIs

There are a few STIs that can cause vaginal itching, including:

These STIs can also cause other symptoms, including unusual vaginal discharge, painful urination, and genital sores.

While not exclusively sexually transmitted, we need to mention pubic lice (also known as crabs). These pesky little insects are typically passed on during intimate contact, but can also be passed through bedding and towels. They cause genital itching that starts five days after infestation and intensifies at night. You might also notice pale bluish dots near the bites and develop a fever.

Menopause

The drop in estrogen that happens during perimenopause and menopause increases the risk of vaginal itching.

That’s because less estrogen causes the tissues of the vulva and vagina to become thinner, drier, and less elastic. Vaginal dryness can result in itching and irritation. You might also find sex painful and bleed after sex.

Stress

Physical and emotional stress can cause vaginal itching and irritation.

It might occur when stress weakens your immune system, leaving you more prone to the infections that cause itching. The increase in the stress hormone cortisol that occurs when you’re under stress has also been shown in animal studies to affect vaginal health and increase the risk for vaginal infections.

Vulvar cancer

Vaginal itching may be a symptom of vulvar cancer. Know that vulvar cancer is rare and vaginal itching is a lot more likely to be caused by something else.

Vulvar cancer can cause vaginal itching that doesn’t go away or get better. It can also cause skin changes on areas of the vulva, like discoloration or thickening of the skin. Bleeding or discharge unrelated to your period and lumps are other possible symptoms. In some people, vulvar cancer doesn’t cause any symptoms.

Yearly gynecological exams can improve the chances of early detection and a better outcome.

It’s important to see a healthcare professional for vaginal itching if the itching is severe enough to disrupt your daily life or sleep. Although most causes aren’t serious, a healthcare professional can help find and treat the root of your itch and offer advice — or a prescription — to help you find relief.

You should also contact a healthcare professional if your vaginal itching persists for more than a week or if your itching is accompanied by other symptoms, such as:

  • ulcers or blisters on the vulva
  • pain or tenderness in the genital area
  • genital redness or swelling
  • trouble urinating
  • an unusual vaginal discharge
  • discomfort during sexual intercourse

If you don’t already have an OB-GYN, you can browse doctors in your area through the Healthline FindCare tool.

Your care team will ask you about your symptoms, including how severe they are and how long they have lasted. They may ask you about your sexual activities as well.

And just a heads up: a pelvic exam will likely be required.

During a pelvic examination, a healthcare professional will visually inspect your vulva and may use a speculum to see inside your vagina. They may press down on your abdomen while inserting a gloved finger into your vagina. This allows them to check the reproductive organs for any abnormalities.

They may also collect a sample of skin tissue from your vulva or a sample of your discharge for analysis. Depending on your symptoms, they may also perform blood or urine tests.

Once your healthcare professional finds the underlying cause of your vaginal itching, they’ll recommend treatment options. The specific course of treatment required depends on the particular condition that’s causing the problem.

Vaginal yeast infections

Vaginal yeast infections are treated with antifungal medications. These come in various forms, including creams, ointments, or pills. They’re available by prescription or over-the-counter (OTC).

If you’ve never been diagnosed with a yeast infection, make sure to speak with a healthcare professional before using an OTC treatment.

BV

BV is usually treated with antibiotics. These may be pills you take orally or creams you insert into your vagina. Regardless of the type you’re given, be sure to finish the entire course of antibiotics even if your symptoms improve.

STIs

Depending on the STI, STIs can be treated with antibiotics, antivirals, or antiparasitics.

Along with taking medication as prescribed, your healthcare professional may also recommend avoiding sex until the infection clears.

Menopause

Menopause-related itching may be treated with estrogen cream, tablets, or a vaginal ring insert.

Other causes

Other types of vaginal itching and irritation often clear on their own.

In the meantime, you can apply steroid creams or lotions to reduce inflammation and ease discomfort.

To avoid making things worse, use steroid creams exactly as directed and discontinue use and see a healthcare professional if your symptoms worsen.

Here are some things you can do to help prevent vaginal itching and maintain good vaginal health:

  • Use warm water and a gentle cleanser to wash your genital area.
  • Avoid scented soaps, lotions, and bubble baths.
  • Avoid using vaginal sprays and douches — your natural smell is just fine!
  • Change out of wet or damp clothing right after swimming or exercising.
  • Wear cotton underwear and change your underwear daily.
  • Use barrier methods when having sex.
  • Get tested for STIs and encourage your partners to do the same.
  • Always wipe front to back to keep bacteria from feces away from the vulva and vagina.

Vaginal itching is uncomfortable but isn’t usually serious. Most of the time, an itchy vagina or vulva will improve on its own with lifestyle tweaks like avoiding irritants below the belt. If you’re concerned, don’t hesitate to connect with a healthcare professional for advice.

Read this article in Spanish.