It’s incredibly uncomfortable—and can be downright worrisome—when your nether regions are itchy. The good news is that there are a few simple explanations for why you may have vaginal itching, along with some easy remedies. “Most of the time when women experience itching in the pubic region, it is the vulva, or the area around the vagina, that is affected,” explains Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale Medical School. While vulvar itching is a common issue, Dr. Minkin adds, “these problems are seldom worrisome or dangerous, although they’re quite annoying.”
1. Yeast Infection. The normal pH of the vagina is below 4.7, which is on the acidic side of the pH scale. Usually, our body’s lactobacilli bacteria—the good kind of bacteria that help maintain acidity—keep yeast away. But when the vagina loses acidity, yeast can build up on the vulva, causing an infection. This often happens when women take antibiotics, which wipes out all bacteria including the good kind, and aren’t taking a probiotic simultaneously to replenish the supply. Yeast also multiplies in warm, moist environments, making your vulva the perfect location to set up shop. The result is cottage cheese-like discharge and itchiness around the labia or tissues around the vaginal opening.
Treatment: If this is your first yeast infection or if you’re pregnant, make an appointment with your primary care physician to get checked out. If you’ve had yeast infections in the past and are experiencing those all-too-familiar symptoms, apply an anti-fungal over-the-counter cream like Gyne-Lotrimin or Monistat to the affected area for several days. To reduce irritation, dab on some topical 1 percent hydrocortisone on the vulva or take an Epsom salt bath. Yeast feed on sugar, so cut sugary foods out of your diet for a while. If the itching doesn’t improve after three to four days, you may have something other than a yeast infection at play and need to see your gynecologist.
2. Vulvitis. This is a general term that can include contact dermatitis or general irritation of the vulva. The most common reason for irritation is that women either scrub that area too hard when bathing or use harsh soaps or other products such as bubble baths or vaginal deodorants that contain fragrance or perfumes, which inflame the vulva. “Remember, the vulva is the most sensitive skin on the body, so be delicate with it,” warns Dr. Minkin. Other culprits include toilet paper with irritating dyes or spending a prolonged period of time in sweaty gym clothing or a wet bathing suit.
Treatment: Use only warm water to wash your genitals. If you must use soap, choose Dove White or Neutrogena, which are very gentle to the skin. Rinse the area and pat dry. Use only white toilet paper and ditch vaginal deodorants.
3. Douching. Let’s cut to the chase here: Douching is dangerous. It messes with the vagina’s delicate pH balance by washing away good bacteria, and it may also carry dangerous bacteria further up the canal. In fact, douching predisposes you to bacterial vaginosis and the odor that comes along with it. And it’s drying.
Treatment: Two words: Stop douching. Your vagina is a self-cleaning oven that rarely needs your help if you don’t mess with it.
Treatment: If you have a chronic skin condition and your itching doesn’t subside in a few days, contact your primary care physician or dermatologist for an exam and treatment recommendations. Certain medications can help mitigate the itching and bring on relief. For example, for psoriasis affecting the vulva, using a low-strength topical corticosteroid for a limited period of time and applying a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizer on the affected area can help.
5. An STD. Don’t panic just yet: Minkin explains that itching as the result of a sexually transmitted infection is rare. That’s because many STDs have no symptoms at all and if they do, they tend to present with symptoms of pain rather than itching. However, occasionally people who have a recurring STD may experience itching in the vulvar region.
Treatment: If the itch continues for several days and none of the above methods are helping, avoid sexual contact and see your primary care physician to diagnose the problem and prescribe medication for the STD.