When to See a Doctor for Vaginal Pain
You don’t have to live with vaginal pain.
Though most people with vaginas experience occasional vaginal discomfort, vaginal pain always signals a problem. Some of these problems are minor and self-limiting; the pain goes away quickly without treatment. In other cases, the pain is a symptom of a medical problem that could get worse without intervention.
Understanding the common causes and likely course of vaginal pain will help you decide when to seek medical care.
- Allergy or irritation. Allergic reactions to birth control products may cause pain, as can skin irritation from soaps, deodorants, or feminine hygiene products.
- Endometriosis. More than 6.5 million Americans have endometriosis, a condition characterized by the presence of uterine lining tissue outside of the uterus. Pain is the most common symptom of endometriosis and may include pelvic pain and pain during and after sex.
- Infection. Bacterial and yeast infections can cause acute vaginal pain, burning and itching. So can sexually transmitted diseases, including herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis. Infection of the Bartholin’s glands—tiny glands located at the vaginal opening—can also cause pain.
- Menopause. Decreased estrogen levels can cause vaginal dryness, which may contribute to vaginal pain during or after sex.
- Pelvic floor spasms. Spasms of the muscles of the pelvic floor can be very painful.
- Pregnancy. Vaginal pain in the third trimester of pregnancy is often what’s known as “lightning crotch,'' because it’s characterized by a sudden jolt of pain that can feel like an electric shock.
- Sex. Sexual activity can cause tearing of the lining of the vagina, which can cause discomfort. Irritation of the cervix during sex can also cause pain.
- Surgery. Although pain is expected and normal after surgery, some patients experience continuing vaginal pain after hysterectomy or other gynecologic surgery.
Begin by taking steps to increase your comfort: Wear loose-fitting clothes and cotton underwear (or no underwear, when practical). Change clothes soon after exercise or swimming. Try soaking in a tub of warm water. Alternately, you can apply an ice pack to your vaginal area. Take over-the-counter pain medication (acetaminophen or ibuprofen) as needed to control pain.
Vaginal yeast infections can be managed at home with over-the-counter vaginal creams, tablets, and suppositories.
If your pain persists despite self-care, or you have reason to believe your pain may be due to infection, schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider. Call your healthcare provider if:
- You have a fever. Fever indicates infection.
- You have unusual vaginal discharge. Smelly or thick white or grey discharge can indicate infection. Medical treatment can clear up your infection and increase comfort.
- Your pain is getting worse. Don’t try to tough it out. Increasing pain may indicate a medical problem that needs attention.
- You’re not sure why you’re experiencing pain. If the cause of your pain is a mystery, it’s a good idea to seek medical advice.
Start with your primary care provider if you have one. You can also visit a family planning clinic or urgent care.
Many cases of vaginal pain can be handled by primary care physicians, nurse practitioners, and nurse midwives. If the primary care provider can’t adequately treat the pain or identify the cause, you may be referred to a gynecologist, a doctor who specializes in female reproductive health. Depending on the cause of your vaginal pain, you may need to see additional health professionals. Specially trained physical therapists, for instance, can help patients manage pelvic floor spasms.
Don’t ignore vaginal pain. If it is severe or doesn’t improve with home treatment, consult a healthcare provider.