What causes a burning sensation in the vagina and around the vulva?

A burning sensation in and around the vaginal, vulva area is a relatively common complaint that many women experience and something that is seen in practice very often. There are so many different causes of vaginal and vulva burning, including irritants, sexually transmitted diseases, atrophic vaginitis, thrush, lichen sclerosis, climates changes and is very common in peri-menopause and the menopause period. Each of the causes has its own set of symptoms and the treatments can all vary, depending what the cause it.

In this article we will look at the common causes of having a burning sensation in the vagina and around the vulva area. We will also look at treatments and management of these as well.

Before we start, it is important that women know that often people use the wrong term for the vagina and the surrounding area and often refer to a woman’s genitals as just being the vagina. It is important that we use the correct terms for a woman’s anatomy so that we can correctly identify were problems are.

The vagina is more the internal part of the female genitals and the vulva is the external part. Th Vulva is an umbrella term for the various parts of the external female genitals. These parts include:

  • Mons pubis – the fatty ‘pad’ that’s covered in pubic hair
  • Labia majora – outer lips
  • Labia minora – inner lips
  • Clitoris – small organ that’s packed with nerve endings
  • Urethral opening – which allows the passage of urine
  • Vestibule – area around the opening of the vagina
  • Perineum – area between the vagina and anus

Now that we understand the proper terms for the anatomy, lets have a look at what some of the common causes of burning sensation are.

Common causes of vaginal and vulva burning sensation

1.Skin Irritation

There are many things that can irritate the skin of the vulva and vagina when they come into direct contact with it. This is known as contact dermatitis.

Irritants that can cause contact dermatitis, inflammation and burning symptoms include non pH neutral soaps, certain fabrics, perfumes, vaginal hygiene sprays, some lubricants and allergens. As well as burning sensations, women may experience the following:

  • severe itching
  • redness and rawness and sometimes bleeding
  • stinging feelings and sensations of heat
  • pain and sometimes

The main way to treat irritation is to avoid whatever has caused the irritation in the first place. Avoiding the irritant and allowing the inflamed area and the skin to heal is one of the best things to do. Sometimes, a woman may require medications to settle the inflammation, or dermatitis down.

2. Candidiasis (Thrush, Yeast infections)

An overgrowth of bad bacteria in the vagina can lead to a burning, stinging sensation and one of the common causes of issues for women. Candidiasis, or thrush is very common in women and is causes through changes in the gut and vaginal flora and this then leads to overgrowth of bacteria, which causes many of the following symptoms

  • itching
  • soreness
  • pain during sex
  • pain or discomfort when urinating
  • discharge from the vagina (either white, or coloured)

Women are more likely to be prone to getting thrush if they are taking antibiotics, using certain form of hormones and contraceptives, have a weakened immune system, live in humid climates, have diabetes, are pregnant, or not cleaning themselves properly. High stress can also lead to changes in the gut and vagina flora and this can also lead to thrush.

Thrush is usually an antifungal medicine called azoles. Azoles can either be used internally into the vagina, or taken orally as a capsule, or both at the same time. Pre and Probiotics should be taken to help build up the good bacteria and women should take care with personal hygiene. Partners may also need to be treated to prevent further reintroduction of thrush via sexual intercourse.

3. UTI- Urinary tract infection

When a woman has a urinary tract infection (UTI), she will be likely to feel burning in and around the vagina when urinating. There may be other presenting symptoms such as:

  • needing to urinate more frequently, or have urgency to urinate
  • pain with urination
  • smelly, or cloudy urine
  • blood in urine
  • pain in lower stomach and radiating pain into the back and kidney area
  • feeling tired or unwell

When a woman has a urinary tract infection antibiotics will be needed and the antibiotics needed will depend on what the cause of the infection is. Usually an infection will clear up in around 5 days after starting a course of antibiotics.Repeat medication may be required if an infection returns.

4. Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)

Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) is the most common vaginal infection in women aged 15 to 44. Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) is a condition that occurs when there is too much of certain kinds of bad bacteria in the vagina, affecting the balance of good bacteria and flora. One of the main symptoms of BV is a burning sensation in the vagina, which can also occur when urinating.

BV does not always cause symptoms but when it does cause symptoms, besides a burning sensation, it can cause the following:

  • white or gray vaginal discharge
  • pain and irritation
  • itching and redness
  • strong fish-like odor, especially after sex (one of the key symptoms)

Having BV can increase a woman’s risk of STI’s and it can also increase her risk of miscarriage, once she is pregnant. If you think that you may have the symptoms of BV, you need to have it check by your doctor as soon as possible. BV is usually treated with antibiotics and you can use complementary medicines to assist in the treatment as well. It is a good idea to restore the good bacteria into the gut and vagina as well. This can be done through the use of prebiotic and probiotic bacteria combined.

5. Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is a common STI and is caused by a parasite that is passed from one person to another during sexual intercourse. Many people may not know that have Trichomoniasis, but symptoms can present with a burning sensation and may  also present with  the following:

  • itching, redness, or soreness
  • discomfort when urinating
  • women can have vaginal discharge that can be clear, white, yellow, or green and with a fishy smell

Trichomoniasis can increase a woman’s risk of miscarriage, so it need to be treated asap. Trichomoniasis is treated by using certain forms of medicines called azoles.

6. Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is an sexually transmitted infection where bacteria called Neisseria gonorrheae infect mucous membranes, such as the cervix, uterus, and fallopian tubes. If a woman is infected with gonorrhoea she can experience vaginal burning when urinating, as well as the following symptoms:

  • pain when urinating
  • vaginal discharge
  • vaginal bleeding between periods

Gonorrhea can be cured with the right medical treatment and it needs to be treated with specific medications. Often dual forms of medication are used for effective treatment.

7. Chlamydia

Chlamydia is a common STI caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis and is  transmitted through sexual intercourse with someone who has the infection.

If a woman comes in contact with chlamydia through intercourse, many times she may be asymptomatic (meaning no symptoms) and this is why it is often known as a silent infection. When symptoms do occur it can cause a burning sensation in the vagina and surrounding area. There can be other symptoms which include:

  • increased vaginal discharge
  • pain with urination and pain during sex
  • bleeding during sex and between periods

Chlamydia can cause damage to a woman’s reproductive organs and can affect her fertility, so it is important to have this treated as soon as possible.  Chlamydia is treated using specific high dose antibiotics. Treatment may also require IV antibiotics and for someone to be admitted to hospital while these are being administered.

8. Genital herpes

Genital herpes is a common sexually transmitted disease caused by skin-to-skin contact with a person with the herpes virus. Once a person has the virus, it stays with them for life. Sometimes the virus can remain dormant and then at certain stages of life (during stress, illness etc), it can become active and start producing symptoms.

If the virus becomes active, they might experience a burning sensation in the vagina, along with some of the following symptoms:

  • an itching or tingling sensation
  • flu-like symptoms
  • swollen glands
  • pain in the vaginal area, particularly when urinating
  • change in vaginal discharge

Painful sores, blisters, or ulcers may also develop after a few days. The symptoms of genital herpes can be treated with antiviral medication but once you have herpes, it cannot be cured. You just need to manage it and its symptoms.

9. Lichen sclerosus

Lichen sclerosus is a skin condition that affects the vulva area in women. Lichen sclerosus can cause burning sensation around the vulva area. It can also cause the following symptoms:

  • itching and tenderness.
  • Pain
  • Scarring
  • Wrinkling and white patches

Postmenopausal women are most susceptible to have lichen sclerosus. The cause is thought to be an autoimmune response of some kind, since the condition is associated with autoimmune disorders such as Graves’ disease and vitiligo. Treatment includes topical steroid creams, other medications, silica cream, zinc cream and regular medical monitoring. Lichen sclerosus is linked to an increased risk of vulvar cancer.

10. Menopause

Vaginal and vulva burning can be as a result of the perimenopause, or menopause stages of life. The shifting levels of hormones in a woman’s body before she enters menopause can affect the vagina and surrounding area. Burning sensations, in the vagina and around the vulva area is one possible result of these changes, especially during sex.

Some of the common symptoms of the perimenopause/menopause period are:

  • hot flushes & night sweats
  • difficulty sleeping
  • reduced sex drive
  • vaginal dryness
  • headaches
  • mood changes
  • Pain with sex
  • Atrophic vaginitis.

Not all women entering menopause have treatment to relieve symptoms, but there are often options available that a doctor, or healthcare practitioner, can outline, including hormone therapy. There are also many natural therapies that can help during peri-menopause and menopause stages of life.

What you can do to help yourself

Many causes of vaginal burning require medical treatment. If you are concerned, the best you can do is to see your healthcare practitioner. There are things you can do before seeing your doctor. Sometimes a ice pack or cold compress to the affected area can help reduce the burning sensation. You can also try some over the counter soothing creams, or antifungals.

Make sure you are practicing proper hygiene and cleaning the outer area of the vulva properly. Women should avoid using douches, which can affect the good bacteria and internal flora of the vagina.  Wearing cotton underwear and avoiding tight-fitting clothes can help reduce irritation in the vaginal area. It is also important to avoid products that could irritate the area further, such as perfumed soap, scented toilet paper, and sanitary products with deodorant, or a plastic coating.

Possible complications

Some causes of vaginal burning, such as urinary tract infections, BV, STI’s, lichen sclerosis can have some serious complications if left untreated. Cancer also needs to be ruled out so this is why it is important to have any symptoms of burning checked out by your doctor.

STI’s can affect future fertility and are also harmful to women who are pregnant, as they can affect their baby, or pregnancy. Many STI’s can cause preterm delivery and also increase the risk of miscarriage.

While some causes of vaginal and vulva burning may go away on their own over time, it is still important to go and get your doctor’s advice just to be safe. If your symptoms aren’t going away, are becoming worse, or are of a concern, then the woman should go and see a doctor as soon as possible. The longer you leave something, the worse it can get and the more issues it can cause, if left untreated. Many of the cases of burning sensation in the vagina and around the vulva will be relieved once the underlying cause is treated properly and with the appropriate medicines.

While medical options will be needed for some conditions, there are complementary medicines and complementary medicine modalities that may be able to assist your particular issue, or alongside medical treatments. Please always see a qualified healthcare practitioner and not use Dr Google, or take advice from friends or family for any medical advice.

Take care

Regards

Dr Andrew Orr

-No Stone Left Unturned

Dr Andrew Orr Logo Normal 20 07 2016

What Is Lichen Sclerosus?

Lichen sclerosus is a long-term problem of the skin. It mostly affects the genital and anal areas. Sometimes, lichen sclerosus appears on the upper body, breasts, and upper arms. For this article I am just going to talk about Lichen Sclerosus of the genital region (Vulva) and more around how this affects women and how it can be treated and managed. Lichen sclerosus can cause itching, pain and scarring of the affected areas, but there are treatments available that can relieve symptoms and prevent and treat scarring.

Who Does Lichen Sclerosis Affect?

While anyone can get lichen sclerosus at any age, women after the menopause have the highest risk. In fact, it is about 10 times more common in women than in men. It is possible, but rare, for children to be affected.

What Are the Symptoms?

Early in the disease, small white spots appear on the skin. The spots are usually shiny and smooth. Later, the spots grow into bigger patches. The skin on the patches becomes thin and crinkled. The skin may also be inflamed and red or ulcerated from scratching.

Skin affected by lichen sclerosus can tear easily, and there may be tiny fissures (cracks in the skin). When severe, there may be bleeding and blistering.Sometimes, the skin becomes scarred. If the disease is a mild case, there may be no symptoms. 
Other symptoms are:

  • Itching (very common)
  • Discomfort or pain
  • Bleeding

Genital lichen sclerosus

Lichen sclerosus that affects the vulva usually feels intensely itchy. There may also be pain, stinging, burning or discomfort, especially during sex or when urinating.

Lichen sclerosus is a chronic, or ongoing, condition, and over time it can lead to scarring. If this affects the vulva, it may narrow the entrance to the vagina, interfering with sexual intercourse.

Women with severe lichen sclerosus in the genitals may not be able to have sex. The disease can cause scars that narrow the vagina. Also, sex can hurt and cause the patches to bleed. However, treatment with creams or ointments can help. Women with severe scarring in the vagina may need surgery, but only after lichen sclerosus is controlled with medication. When the skin around the anus is affected, pain when emptying the bowels can lead to constipation.

What Causes Lichen Sclerosus?

Doctors don’t know the exact cause of lichen sclerosus. Some doctors think a too active immune system and hormone problems may play a role. In women, lichen sclerosus also seems to be associated with autoimmune diseases (conditions where the immune system attacks the body), such as lupus , alopecia and thyroid disease. It is also thought that people inherit the likelihood of getting the disease. There may also be a hormonal involvement as It is also more common after menopause, when there is less oestrogen in the body.

Lichen sclerosus is more likely to appear on skin that has been damaged or scarred from some other previous injury. Importantly, lichen sclerosus is not infectious and your partner cannot catch it during sex.

How Is It Diagnosed?

Lichen sclerosus can often be diagnosed from the appearance of the affected skin. It is important that your GP refer you to a pelvic floor/urodynamic specialist, reproductive medicine specialist or women’s health specialist that specialises in conditions affecting the female reproductive organs. Sometimes a referral to a dermatologist may also be needed also.

Besides visual diagnosis, a biopsy may be recommended to confirm the diagnosis. This involves taking a small sample of affected tissue for a pathologist to examine under a microscope. This allows specialists to make sure that it is not a different disease.

Treatment of lichen sclerosus

Treatment of lichen sclerosus is aimed at:

  • Relieving symptoms of itch and discomfort;
  • Healing the lesions (returning the affected skin to its normal colour and texture);
  • Preventing the development of scar tissue; and
  • Treating any scar tissue that has developed.

Medical Treatments for Lichen Sclerosus

Lichen sclerosus is usually treated by applying a strong steriod cream, or ointment to the affected area. This is usually applied daily for several weeks, or months, and then less frequently (once or twice per week) long-term to prevent a recurrence.

Corticosteroid ointment or cream should be applied only to the white patches and gently rubbed in. Try to avoid applying steroid to the normal surrounding skin to help prevent side effects.

Symptoms such as itch may improve within a couple of days of starting corticosteroid treatment. Healing of lesions generally takes longer.

Women with Lichen Sclerosis will need regular follow up consultations and management with their specialist while using these creams and ointments for a long time because they can cause the following

  • Thinning and redness of the skin
  • Stretch marks where the cream is applied
  • Genital yeast infections.

Sometimes, women just do not get better using this medication and there could be other things that could be stopping symptoms from clearing up. This could be from the following:

  • Low estrogen levels
  • Infection
  • Allergy to the medication.

Other treatments

If topical steroid treatment is not effective, your specialist may recommend other medications and treatments that target the immune system and help control inflammation.

  • Sometimes other medications such as Retinoids, or vitamin A-like drugs are used and your specialist may also recommend laser treatment.
  • If scarring has occurred, this does not usually improve with steroid treatment. Scarring in females that is affecting sexual intercourse or urination may be helped by surgery
  • There are also some new medical treatments that are presently being researched and providing some amazing results options and I will discuss at a later date. They are actually natural medicines that are being used as a medical treatments. All I can say is that I have seen the results of this new treatment option and I think it is going to help many people. At present on of my colleagues, Dr Philip Hall, is using this treatment to help women as part of a research project. I will update people when I am allowed to say more about this new treatment.

Natural Medicine Treatments

  • There are natural medicine treatments that have been shown to help Lichen Sclerosus
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine
  • Acupuncture
  • Homeopathy
  • Herbal Medicine
  • Nutritional Supplements
  • Diet and nutritional changes ( to help reduce inflammation)
  • Counselling ( to help with dealing with the long term affects of dealing with this disease)

Self-care measures for genital lichen sclerosus

The following self-care measures may help in the treatment of lichen sclerosus that affects the genital area.

  • Gently wash the area daily with warm water and pH neutral soap cleanser.
  • Try not to rub or scratch the area. This can sometimes be really hard when it is itchy and inflamed
  • Avoid tight clothing and any activities that may aggravate itching and discomfort, such as bike riding.
  • Your specialist may recommend you apply cream to gently moisturise and protect the area.
  • Women should use a mirror to become familiar with the location and appearance of their genital lesions, and to apply cream or ointment to the affected area of the vulva.

Complications and follow-up

If you have been diagnosed with lichen sclerosus then it is advisable to have regular follow-up appointments with your specialist every 6 to 12 months. In addition, genital lichen sclerosus is associated with a small, but important, increase in the risk of cancer developing at the affected site. Frequent check-ups are important to detect any cancers early on, when they can be more easily treated.

I have treated many women with Lichen Sclerosus in my years in practice and I do find that a multimodality approach is the best way to treat, assist and manage this disease effectively. Sometimes you need to have a team to help treat this, just like many other diseases women endure.So many women are are at their wits end with this disease and all sorts of treatments that have not worked. I can say this if this disease is treated and manage properly, it can give women their quality of life back.

Take care

Regards

Dr Andrew Orr

Women’s & Men’s Health Crusader

-“No Stone Left Unturned”