Vaginal itching is a relatively common symptom that, in most cases, is a sign of skin irritation or an infection. This symptoms may be a sign of a more serious infection like a yeast infection, a sexually transmitted infection or cancer.
When itching is caused by an allergic reaction or irritation, it is mostly felt externally and is caused by friction of synthetic-fabric underwear. The use of synthetic underwear or jeans can cause more irritation and worsen the itching.
When the itching is internal, it may be caused by the presence of fungi or bacteria, which often provoke other symptoms like local swelling and discharge.
What causes vaginal itching?
These are the most common causes of vaginal itching are:
1. Yeast infection
A yeast infection, also known as candidiasis, is caused by the excessive growth of Candida albicans. It occurs when the immune system is weakened, or if there are pH changes in the vagina. Yeast infections can cause itching, burning, and a white cottage-cheese like discharge. Learn more about the symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection and what can cause it.
Treatment for yeast infections normally consists of topical antifungal ointments or oral antifungal pills that are prescribed by the doctor. You should also avoid sleeping with underwear and opt to wash your genital area with just water and mild soap.
There are many irritants that can trigger a mild skin reaction, like chlorine (which is found in tap water and pools), latex (present in condoms), lubricants, some soaps, fabrics (like Lycra and microfibers), and semen. These can cause itching, as well as burning, redness and vaginal swelling.
The irritation should be assessed by a doctor so that treatment can be guided by the underlying trigger. Treatment may consist of corticosteroids and anti-histamines. You should also avoid the use of latex condoms with odors or flavors, and opt for cotton underwear.
To treat a semen allergy, you should use a condom during all sexual contact to avoid direct contact with the sperm. Other treatment that be recommended by a gynecologist include desensitization therapy, in which the doctor inserts small amounts of semen into the vagina for 20 minutes at a time so that the body will not reject it.
3. Sexually transmitted infections
Some sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, like trichomoniasis, vaginal warts or genital herpes can cause vaginal itching.
When itching emerges after unprotected sex, you should see you doctor for assessment and testing. If an STI is confirmed, treatment may include the use of antibiotics and antivirals.
4. Bacterial vaginosis
Bacterial vaginosis, or BV, is an infection that emerges due to an imbalance of vaginal flora. This can happen with vaginal douching, hormone changes or with the presence of an STI. BV is characterized by the overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina, leading to symptoms like itching, redness and a foul-smelling discharge.
To treat BV, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics, which can be oral or topical. In addition, you should use a condom during any sexual contact and avoid any alcohol.
5. Atrophic vaginitis
Atrophic vaginitis is an inflammation in the vagina that is caused by a decrease in estrogen. This is most common during menopause, when breastfeeding and when taking cancer treatment medication. This condition can cause itching, foul-smelling dsihcarge or pain and burning with urination.
The treatment of atrophic vaginitis should be recommended by a gynecologist, who may advise the use of estrogen (oral or topical), lubricants and analgesic medication.
6. Cytolytic vaginosis
Cytolytic vaginosis occurs when the number of lactobacili bacteria in the vagina. This bacteria is naturally found in the vagina, but can overgrow, and cause a decrease in vaginal pH. This can lead to symptoms similar to a yeast infection, like itching and a cottage cheese-like discharge without odor.
To treat cytolytic vaginosis, the doctor may prescribe a topical cream with sodium borate. This mineral has antiseptic and antifungal properties.
7. Lichen planus
Lichen planus is an inflammatory illness that is caused by an immune response to medications, chemicals or stress. It causes itching and burning in the vagina.
The treatment for lichen planus should be guided by a dermatologist or gynecologist. It can consist of the use of anti-histamines, corticosteroid, and psychotherapy if it is stress-related.
8. Lichen sclerosis
Lichen sclerosis is an inflammatory skin condition that is triggered by genetic and immune factors. It can lead to symptoms like vaginal itching, irritation, peeling and blisters.
To treat lichen sclerosis, the doctor may prescribe optical ointments with corticosteroids. You should also avoid itching the area, and opt to use cotton-based underwear. You should perfrom hygiene only using water and a mild soap.
9. Vulvular cancer
Vulvular cancer is a type of cancer that affects the external vagina. It causes symptoms like itching, pain, bleeding outside of your period, wounds or leasions, lumps, warts and changes to vulvular texture or color.
This disease is treated by an oncologist, who may recommend radiation therapy, chemotherapy or surgery.
Dermatitis is an inflammatory illness that can affect the vaginal area. It is characterized by decreased oil production in the vulva, but may be triggered by irritating products, like soaps or perfumes. Common symptoms include irritation, itching, redness and skin peeling.
Treatment will vary with the type of dermatitis, which can include the use of topical corticosteroids or antifungals. The doctor may additional recommend home remedies, like ensuring the vaginal area remains clean and dry, and avoiding soaking in hot baths.
11. Genital psoriasis
Genital psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that can affect vulvular skin in the external vagina. This can cause intense itching with red patches and peeling.
To treat genital psoriasis, the doctor may prescribe ointments with corticosteroids as well as oral anti-inflammatories. Learn more about what causes genital psoriasis and how it is treated.
Quick symptom checker
To find out the reason for your vaginal itching, report the symptoms you are experiencing below:
Some of these symptoms commonly occur in other diseases as well, therefore it is best to be assessed by your doctor if the itching does not resolve within 1 week of conservative treatment, like keeping your vaginal area clean and dry, avoiding synthetic clothing and eating less sugary foods.
How to prevent vaginal itching
To prevent vaginal and vulvular itching, you should:
- Wear cotton underwear, and avoiding synthetic materials that don’t allow the skin to breathe
- Perform adequate hygiene, washing only the external vaginal area, with a mild soap, especially after sex
- Avoid wearing tight clothing to prevent the area from heating up
- Change your menstrual pads or tampons at least every 4 to 5 hours so that the vagina is not in constant contact with fungus or bacteria in the area
- Use condoms during sexual intercourse to prevent STDs.
These tips also help to relieve irritation and reduce itching in the area when it already exists. Not eating sugary foods is also recommended.