Vulvitis is a catch-all term for inflammation, irritation, or itchiness affecting the external genitalia. It’s typically due to an allergic reaction, another skin condition, or an underlying autoimmune disorder. Vulvitis can clear up quickly with proper treatment.
“Vulvitis is irritation or inflammation of the vulva — not the vagina,” says Renita White, MD, OB-GYN, medical advisor for The Honey Pot Company, a plant-based brand dedicated to vulvovaginal wellness.
Although people often use the term “vagina” to refer to the entire genital area, it’s actually a medical term for a distinct part of your reproductive anatomy.
Your vagina is an internal canal connecting your uterus to the outside of your body. Your vulva is made up of different external structures, including the pubic mound, outer labia, inner labia, and clitoris glans.
“Vulvitis is typically associated with itchiness, redness, flakiness, slight puffiness of the delicate skin, and in some cases, blisters or lesions,” says White.
However, the condition can also cause:
That said, contact with internal irritants inside the vaginal canal can sometimes result in external symptoms.
Common irritants include:
- scented tampons, pads, liners, and wipes
- douches and other internal “cleansers”
- scented bath bombs, salts, and other soaks
- dyed or scented toilet paper
- spermicide and lubricant
- laundry detergent
- tight, damp, or sweaty clothing
Several underlying conditions can also cause vulvitis, including:
“Vulvitis is very common,” says White. “It can affect any age group, from adolescence to postmenopausal.”
People who tend to have reactions to products elsewhere on their body are more likely to develop vulvitis than those who do not generally have sensitive skin.
However, certain populations may be more likely to develop conditions known to cause vulvitis.
“Conditions like lichen sclerosus, for example, tend to affect postmenopausal and prepubertal people,” says White. “On the other hand, lichen planus tends to primarily affect perimenopausal and postmenopausal people,” she adds.
Your healthcare professional will perform a pelvic exam to assess any symptoms you identified and check for other visible changes that may have gone unnoticed.
They’ll likely take a swab of your vaginal fluids (Wet mount) to test for an underlying bacterial or fungal infection. They may want to take a sample of cells from your cervix (Pap smear) to check for abnormalities.
Testing for sexually transmitted conditions can further narrow down the cause. Urine tests are typically used to detect chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis, while blood tests can detect syphilis and HIV.
If you have lesions or other sores, your clinician will likely swab the wound to test the sample for herpes simplex virus.
“If your vulvitis is caused by an irritant, the first step is to adjust your habits or discontinue use,” says White.
Antibiotics can help clear up a bacterial infection, while other underlying conditions typically require a more robust treatment plan.
White explains that, in addition to treating the condition directly, you may need topical low dose steroids or hormones to treat vulvitis.
The exact medications will vary, but common recommendations are:
- synthetic estrogen (Estrace)
- methylprednisolone aceponate (Advantan, Avancort)
- betamethasone valerate (Betnovate)
The best way to prevent vulvitis, according to Swarup, is to follow these suggestions:
Is vulvitis contagious?
“No, vulvitis itself is not contagious,” says White.
“But if it’s caused by an underlying infection, the infection may be contagious even though vulvitis itself is not,” explains Swarup.
How long does vulvitis last?
Vulvitis symptoms typically resolve within a few weeks, according to Swarup.
Identifying the underlying cause is key to symptom relief. Vulvitis due to an external or internal irritant will typically improve when you discontinue use.
Is vulvitis the same thing as vaginitis or vulvovaginitis?
“The difference is the location of the involved area,” says White. “Vaginitis is irritation of the vagina, while vulvovaginitis is irritation of the vagina and vulva.” Vulvitis only affects the external genitals.
Vulvitis is common, curable, and often preventable. If you’re experiencing new, unusual, or severe symptoms, you may want to speak with a doctor or other healthcare professional.
They can help determine the underlying cause and advise you on any next steps.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.