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One night you go to bed with an itchy spot on your inner thigh, and the next morning you wake up to a full-fledged vaginal breakout! Yikes. But you know what? Genital rashes happen. The good news is that they’re treatable.
To figure out what’s agitating your vag, note which symptoms you’re experiencing (you might need a mirror).
- itching, burning skin
- bumps and blisters
- a red, angry, swollen vulva (the external part of your genitals)
- splotchy skin (pink, yellow, red, or anything in between!)
- vaginal ooze
- painful sex
- swollen lymph nodes (check for lumps on your neck, behind your ears, and your groin)
Rashes are your skin’s reaction to irritants. Though annoying AF, they’re usually pretty harmless. Only in rare cases are rashes a sign of bigger problems.
Here are more than a dozen common rashes you could find lurking around your lady bits.
If you just switched detergents, it’s probably… contact dermatitis
When you change any product that touches your skin — body wash, detergent, scented TP, scented pad — you run the risk of contact dermatitis.
It’s an allergic reaction or irritation, and according to one study, the culprit behind about 50 percent of vaginal rashes. Dermatitis rashes are red, itchy, and usually pretty dry.
It can be tough to figure out what’s causing your contact dermatitis. Maybe it’s a bleach spot on your underwear. Maybe it’s just a bad combo of sweat, friction, and new pants.
The good news? Get rid of whatever is causing it and you’ll be back to normal in no time.
If your lady bits are red and scaly, it’s probably… psoriasis
If you already have psoriasis, you’ll recognize the scaly, itchy rash erupting on the delicate skin around your nether regions.
Psoriasis happens when your immune system goes into hyperdrive, producing extra skin cells. It usually pops up on elbows and knees, but once in a while it can travel to your booty or lady bits too.
Between one-third and two-thirds of people with psoriasis will develop it on their genitals.
In 2014, researchers found that women with psoriasis often report frequent vaginal itching. The rash won’t enter your actual vagina, but it can circle around your labia and extend to your anus.
Most low-strength corticosteroid creams will be effective for psoriasis on skin near your genitals. Chat with your doctor or dermatologist if you’re ever unsure about using a med around your vagina.
If your vulva is swollen and itchy, it’s probably… vaginitis
Ever had a yeast infection? Congrats, that was vaginitis! Vaginitis is an umbrella term for infections or inflammation around your lady parts.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) reports that your vagina’s lining gets swollen and irritated when your body’s yeast and bacteria gets out of whack.
Antibiotics, douching, and spermicide all up your risk factor since they mess with your body’s delicate balance. Once things swell up and start to itch, you’ll probably notice other symptoms such as:
- fishy-smelling discharge
- yellow, grey, green, or lumpy discharge
- pain during sex and peeing
- vaginal bleeding
Most vaginitis episodes can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) creams, but sometimes prescription antibiotics or antifungals are necessary.
If you’ve got little round bumps down there, it’s probably… molluscum contagiosum
The name is funky, but molluscum contagiosum is a pretty common viral infection. Most people get it by having sex with an infected person.
Molluscum contagiosum looks like a bunch of firm, round bumps — like tiny pearls under your skin. The bumps start off flesh-colored, then get red and angry.
If your immune system is alive and kicking, you can probably fight this one without meds. You can speed up the healing process with topical treatments like potassium hydroxide or some homeopathic formulas.
If you see tiny red bumps that itch like crazy, it’s probably… scabies
With scabies, your skin literally feels like it’s crawling because… it is. Scabies is caused by tiny mites that burrow into your skin to lay their eggs. The rash on your vag is your skin’s way of freaking out about the whole mess.
So, how did you get mites in your labia? Maybe your partner has scabies. Maybe you slept in an infected bed or used a dirty towel. Possibilities are endless.
The best thing you can do is stop scratching, pick up some meds (OTC options are available, but you’ll get relief faster from prescriptions), and wash all your clothes in hot water ASAP.
If the itchiness is centered around your pubic hair, it’s probably… lice
Scabies aren’t the only possible bugs in your rug. Lice don’t burrow into your skin, but they do like pubic hair. You can catch ‘em by coming into contact with any infested person or thing.
The good news is that lice won’t crawl into your vagina. Grab some OTC medications like Rid or Nix and wash up your pubic hair. If the rash remains after a few days, get prescription-strength treatments from your doctor.
If you have a cluster of small fluid-filled bumps, you probably have… herpes
Genital herpes might sound like your worst nightmare, but take heart — it’s one of the most common sexually transmitted infections (STI). The CDC reports that 1 in 6 people ages 14 to 49 have the disease. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Once you have the herpes simplex virus, you’re kinda stuck with it forever. It hangs out quietly in your nerve cells until the next outbreak.
You’ll first notice symptoms — little burning blisters around your vagina and butt — about a week after you’ve had sex with an infected person. The sores will burn and ooze for a few weeks, then crust over.
For some people, that’s the end of the outbreak, while others experience a swollen, painful vulva for a while.
Think you might have genital herpes? There are a few telltale signs.
- sudden fever
- swollen lymph glands
- headache and body aches
There’s no cure for herpes, but your doctor can prescribe meds to shorten the length of your outbreak.
If your vag rash is accompanied by flu-like symptoms, you might have… syphilis
Another STI, syphilis shows up more gradually than herpes. It’s caused by a bacteria called Treponema pallidum, which can be deadly if left untreated for a long time.
Here’s how syphilis progresses:
- Stage 1: You’ll notice a tiny sore near your vagina about 3 to 4 weeks after contracting the STI. The sore will go away after a few weeks, but the Treponema pallidum is still pumping through your system.
- Stage 2: You’ll get a full-blown vagina rash, along with flu-like symptoms (and possibly unexplained weight loss and hair loss).
- Stage 3: Here’s when your symptoms go silent. It’s crucial to see your doc during the second stage so that you’re not lulled into thinking the condition has passed.
- Stage 4: It’s rare for someone to reach this point. Even untreated syphilis doesn’t always develop to the point where organs begin to fail. It usually takes at least 10 years for syphilis to advance to the life-threatening stage.
If you think your rash might be a sign of syphilis, make an appointment with your doctor. This STI is treatable with prescription meds.
If the bumps look like warts, then yes, you probably have… genital warts
The thought of genital warts might have you feeling some kind of way, but the truth is these human papillomavirus (HPV) indicators are super common.
Sometimes a wart flies solo, but they usually appear in clusters. Appearances vary.
- Color. Warts can vary from flesh-toned to purple, gray, or brown.
- Size. Warts can be super tiny or large-ish round protrusions.
- Texture. Genital warts can be rough or smooth.
These painless (though sometimes itchy) intruders sometimes shrivel up on their own. But you should keep it 100 with your partner because HPV is contagious even after the warts disappear.
It’s best to chat with your doctor about this one.
If the rash is sore and oozing, you probably have… vulvar ulcers
Vulvar ulcers start as innocuous bumps that grow sore and leaky over time. They’re caused by STIs and infections.
Sometimes vulvar ulcers also show up because…
- You have psoriasis.
- You’re having an allergic reaction to a drug.
- You have an injury from sexual trauma.
- You’ve been diagnosed with Behçet disease.
Vulvar ulcers usually show up along with other symptoms, such as:
- trouble peeing
- swollen lymph nodes
- leaky vaginal fluid
They might sound scary, but ulcers are totally treatable. The methods and meds will depend on what’s causing your ulcer episode.
If you can’t stop scratching an invisible rash, you probably have… neurodermatitis
Neurodermatitis isn’t your run-of-the-mill rash. It starts with a normal patch of skin — like a spot on your labia, for instance — that itches like mad.
Eventually, your skin gets thick and leathery because of nonstop scratching. Scratching irritates your nerve endings, which makes your skin itch all over again. It’s a vicious, invisible cycle.
Doctors aren’t sure what causes neurodermatitis, but it might be triggered by something as simple as a bug bite or mild jock itch.
Sometimes an OTC drugstore cream is enough to kick neurodermatitis to the curb, but you should see your dermatologist if the itching doesn’t let up.
If your labia or vagina is red and raw, you might have… lichen planus
Lichen planus happens when your immune system freaks out and attacks your mucous membranes.
Though the painful redness, whitened skin patches, and burning during sex might make you think there’s something seriously wrong, lichen planus is treatable. It’s also not contagious.
Most doctors prescribe topical steroids for lichen planus. Since the condition can cause scarring and damage over time, it’s important to get treated ASAP.
There’s a tiny risk of squamous cell carcinoma with this condition, so keep your doctor in the loop if the rash gets worse.
If your swelling is painless but growing slowly, you probably have… a Bartholin’s cyst.
A Bartholin’s gland cyst begins as a bit of swelling inside your labia, next to the opening of your vagina.
One of the glands that keeps you lubed up can get infected, slowly filling with pus — almost like cystic acne, but down in your lady bits instead of on your face.
Bartholin’s cysts don’t usually hurt much except during sex. As the infection grows, you’ll notice more discomfort and redness.
Depending on the severity, cysts can be treated with pain relievers or outpatient removal procedures.
If the skin around your vagina has white patches, you probably have… lichen sclerosus.
Lichen sclerosus is a rare skin disorder that usually affects young girls or postmenopausal women.
It looks like white plaque that wraps around your vulva and anus, creating an uncomfortable figure eight-shaped rash.
Sometimes lichen sclerosus goes away on its own, but it’s best to tell your doctor about it. While topical creams alleviate symptoms, you might need to break out the prescription meds to keep the rash from returning.
Sometimes an itchy, irritated vag doesn’t have a rash at all. You might be swollen or itchy for one of these other reasons.
- tight clothes (swap those compression leggings for joggers once in a while!)
- razor burn
- heat rash from skipping the shower after your workout
- ingrown pubic hairs
- friction in skin folds
If your rash is centered around your vaginal opening (instead of the whole genital region), contact dermatitis or vaginitis are probably to blame.
It’s also possible that a Bartholin’s cyst (remember, a lubrication gland blockage) is the culprit.
Your vulva is the umbrella term for any genitals outside your vaginal opening. That includes the tissue around your clit, labia minora, and your urethra.
Rashes on your vulva can usually be traced to neurodermatitis, psoriasis, lichen sclerosus, or herpes.
Your labia, aka the “lips” of your vagina, can swell for a lot of reasons.
Sometimes it’s just an allergic reaction (did you switch tampon brands? condoms?), and sometimes they get irritated after rough or dry sex. It could also be trich (an STI) or a yeast infection.
If your rash could be contagious, your first step is to alert your partner. If you’re pregnant, ask your doctor about the risk of passing it on to the baby.
If this is your first vaginal rash, it’s best to give your doctor a call. Discuss new products, STI risk factors, and your specific symptoms to figure out the underlying cause.
Once you’re diagnosed the first time, you’ll recognize recurring rashes and know how to treat them.
At the doctor’s office, you’ll be asked to give your medical history and show your rash.
Your doctor might also take a swab of discharge, a skin scrape, or schedule a biopsy. For microscopic causes like scabies or psoriasis, it’s important to get some of your skin cells under a microscope.
Sometimes a blood test is necessary to rule out STIs. Your doctor might also refer you to a specialist like a gyno, derm, or infectious disease specialist.
As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Follow these tips to banish future vag rashes:
- Practice good groin hygiene.
- Take care of your overall health to fight infections.
- Use condoms or dental dams if there’s a chance your partner has an STI.
- Don’t share towels or clothing.
- Avoid irritants like scented products or douches (especially if you have contact dermatitis).