Vulvar dermatitis causes the soft skin surrounding the opening of the vagina to become tender and itchy. Most cases are manageable with ointments and medications.

The vulva is the outer portion of the female genitals. This includes the outer labia majora, inner labia minora, the external part of the clitoris, and the vaginal and urethral opening.

Vulvar dermatitis occurs when the skin becomes irritated. It can affect people of all ages.

This article explains what vulvar dermatitis is and how to treat it.

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Vulvar dermatitis occurs when the vulva or the folds of skin around the vagina become irritated, itchy, and inflamed. Doctors may refer to this inflammation as vulvitis.

It is a form of dermatitis, which refers to a group of conditions causing skin inflammation.

A person’s symptoms may vary depending on the cause. However, some common symptoms of vulvar dermatitis include:

  • moderate to severe itching
  • burning or tenderness of the vulva
  • vulvar swelling
  • pain or discomfort during intercourse
  • irritation

Vulvar dermatitis is usually the result of contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis occurs when a person’s skin becomes sensitive to heat, moisture, or another irritant. There are two main types of contact dermatitis:

Irritant contact dermatitis

According to a 2021 review, irritant contact dermatitis is one of the most common causes of vulvar symptoms in prepubertal girls. Irritant contact dermatitis occurs when a product or substance irritates the outer layer of a person’s skin, such as:

  • body fluids, including vaginal discharge
  • feminine hygiene products
  • laundry detergents
  • soap or harsh cleansers
  • tight-fitting clothes
  • friction, such as during sexual intercourse
  • excessive washing
  • washcloths

Allergic contact dermatitis

Allergic contact dermatitis occurs following exposure to a substance that someone is allergic to.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), there are more than 15,000 known allergens that can trigger a reaction. Some potential causes of allergic contact dermatitis chemicals in:

  • perfumes
  • soaps and detergents
  • sanitary pads
  • spermicides
  • lubricants
  • rubber products, such as latex gloves, condoms, and menstrual cups
  • pantyhose or clothing containing azo dyes

Vulvar dermatitis may appear suddenly or worsen over time with repeated exposure.

Other causes

A number of other conditions can lead to vulvar dermatitis. Some of these conditions can be more serious than contact dermatitis, meaning that a person experiencing vulval symptoms that do not resolve should contact a doctor.

Other causes of vulvar itching include:

Identifying and avoiding the triggers of vulvar dermatitis is an important step in treating the problem. People who are unsure of the cause may need to undergo a patch test. This involves placing various substances on the skin to check for an allergic reaction.

Other possible treatments include applying steroid ointments or using Gold Bond or Zeasorb powder.

Here are a few at-home prevention strategies that may prevent vulvar dermatitis:

  • avoiding an irritant or allergen that triggers symptoms
  • refraining from scratching the area
  • taking anti-itch medications
  • using a cool compress on the area
  • washing new clothes before wearing them

The following self-care and hygiene measures could also reduce the risk of vulvar dermatitis:

Do:

  • use unscented toilet paper
  • use sanitary pads that have a cotton liner
  • be cautious of feminine hygiene products that have the words “gentle” or “mild” on the label
  • pat dry or use a hairdryer on the cool setting to dry the vulva

Do not:

  • put scented lotions or oils on the vulva
  • scrub the vulva with a washcloth
  • douche
  • use menstrual products that contain deodorant or have plastic coatings
  • use hair removal products or shave the vulva
  • use soaps, gels, or lotions that contain perfumes

Vulvar dermatitis is not contagious. However, engaging in sexual activities could exasperate the symptoms and become painful.

A person with vulvar dermatitis should give their body time to heal before becoming intimate. Persistent symptoms may require an evaluation from a healthcare professional.

People who decide to have intercourse during a flare-up would benefit from:

  • avoiding condoms that contain spermicide or that are scented or flavored
  • using natural oils such as vegetable or coconut oil if lubrication is required
  • using a polyurethane condom
  • avoiding the use perfumed personal care products among sexual partners

The best way to prevent a potential flare-up is to avoid the irritant or allergen, which could include:

  • perfumed or scented products, such as vaginal sprays or douches
  • scented sanitary pads and tampons
  • adult and baby wipes
  • colored or scented toilet paper
  • scented soaps and other bath products
  • hair removal and bleaching products
  • tight-fitting clothing, underwear, or stockings
  • nylon underwear or pantyhose
  • chlorine
  • damp or sandy swimwear
  • latex condoms, lubricants, and spermicides
  • bodily fluids

Most vulvar dermatitis cases are due to some form of contact dermatitis. However, other factors may contribute to a person’s diagnosis. Doctors may begin their assessment with:

  • a pelvic examination
  • assessing the person’s medical history
  • taking urine or vaginal discharge samples
  • a patch test

Most cases of vulvar dermatitis are not serious and should improve with time and treatment.

However, as some causes of itching can be serious and require treatment, it is important that people should contact a healthcare professional if they experience severe itching or an itch that does not improve with time.

People should also contact a doctor for symptoms that include:

  • increased swelling, pain, or warmth around the vaginal area
  • fever or chills
  • burning during urination
  • foul-smelling vaginal discharge

Vulvar dermatitis is a condition that causes irritated, itchy skin around the vagina. The condition is often the result of products, clothing, or other substances that irritate the skin.

Vulvar dermatitis is not always preventable. However, avoiding common irritants can reduce the risk of the condition.

While limiting exposure to potential irritants and avoiding sexual activity until symptoms improve can be helpful, people experiencing prolonged or severe vulvar dermatitis should see a healthcare professional. Doing so can help determine the cause of their symptoms and an appropriate treatment plan.