Bumps and cysts on the vulva can present in many different forms and can mean many different things. This article is an overview of the most common types of vulvar bumps and cysts. As always, see your health care professional for proper diagnosis and treatment.
What causes vulvar bumps/cysts?
There are many causes for vulvar bumps and cysts, and depending on how they present, the resulting conditions can be anywhere from harmless (Fordyce spots) to serious (HPV). As Dr. Trisha Macnair and BBC Health note, "There are many reasons why lumps and bumps can form in the area of the vulva (the outer, visible skin folds of the female genital tract) and the vagina (the internal muscular passage), and most of these are relatively harmless."
Dr. Frederick R. Jelovsek elaborates: "There are several skin structures on the vulva that can become infected or grow into nodules and bumps that can be quite irritating. As with any skin, there are hair follicles, sweat glands and other skin glands such as Bartholin glands, and vestibule glands. Infectious agents such as viruses and bacteria can cause skin lumps as well."
Below is a list of the most common types of bumps and cysts found on the vulva (it is by no means comprehensive).
| Most Common Types of Vulvar Bumps/Cysts:
Named after American dermatologist John Addison Fordyce, Fordyce's spots are small, painless, raised, white or pale spots or bumps 1 to 3 mm in diameter that may appear on the labia, as well as the inner surface and vermilion border of the lips of the face. They are common women at any age (NOTE: men also commonly experience Fordyce's spots on the penis).
They are a form of ectopic sebaceous gland, and are not known to be associated with any disease or illness and are of cosmetic concern only. They are non-infectious and a totally natural occurrence on the body. This PubMed article tells us that Fordyce spots are extremely common in adults.
USC notes that once Fordyce's spots are diagnosed, no treatment is necessary.
Click here to see what one VPer's Fordyce spots look like (NSFW).
What are Bartholin's cysts?
The U of Michigan Health System says that "a Bartholin's gland cyst is a fluid-filled swelling of a Bartholin's gland. Bartholin's glands are two small glands on each side of the opening of the vagina (birth canal). These glands are called Bartholin's glands. They each have a small duct (tube) that opens to the outside. The glands produce a fluid that helps protect the tissues around the vagina and provides lubrication during sexual intercourse. Normally these glands cannot be felt or seen. A cyst may develop when the duct of one of the glands becomes swollen and blocked. Injury, irritation, or infection may cause a buildup of fluid and swelling that blocks the duct."
Here is a list of the most common symptoms women experience with Bartholin's cysts:
| Symptoms of Bartholin's Cysts:
Make an appointment to see your health care provider. S/he will ask about your symptoms and will examine your vulva and vagina to look for a swollen area at the vaginal opening. The swelling will be diagnosed as a cyst if it is not painful. If it is painful and infected, it is called a Bartholin's gland abscess.
How are Bartholin's cysts treated? This list from the University of Michigan offers the following alternatives:
| Treatment Options for Bartholin's Cysts:
How do I know when it's time to call my health care provider?
Call your health care provider if you have any of these signs of infection:
| Call Your Health Care Provider Upon Experiencing:
How can I help prevent a Bartholin's gland cyst?
The University of Michigan offers the following preventative measures:
| How to Prevent Bartholin's Cysts:
Okay, so these aren't quite vulvar. Natbothian cysts are basically tiny little bumps on your cervix. As the National Library of Medicine explains:
The cervical canal is lined by glandular cells that normally secrete mucus. These endocervical glands can become covered by squamous epithelium in a process called metaplasia.
These nests of glandular cells (nabothian glands) on the cervix may become filled with secretions. As secretions accumulate, a smooth, rounded lump may form just under the surface of the cervix and become large enough to be seen or felt upon examination.
Each cyst appears as a small, white, pimple-like elevation. They can occur singly or in groups, and they are not a threat to health. The cysts are more common in women of reproductive age, especially those who have already had children.
Nabothian cysts are not harmful and generally do not require treatment.
As MedLinePlus notes, a sebaceous cyst is a (benign) closed sac found just under the skin containing pasty- or cheesy-looking skin secretions. They most often arise from swollen hair follicles, or as a result of skin trauma. What actually happens is that a sac of cells is created into which a protein called keratin is secreted.
In most cases, your physician can diagnose a cyst based on its appearance. Occasionally, a biopsy may be needed to rule out other conditions with a similar appearance.
Sebaceous cysts are not dangerous and can usually be ignored. At times, they may become inflamed and tender. Others may grow large and interfere with day-to-day life. In these cases, you can have them surgically removed in a physician's office.
Call your health care provider if you notice any new growths on your body. Though cysts are not dangerous, your doctor should examine you to ensure that you're not mistaking what you see for a more serious condition.
MedLinePlus says that folliculitis kicks in when hair follicles are damaged by friction from clothing, blockage of the follicle or shaving. It usually results in the development of a pimple or cyst on the skin's surface and generally produces less discomfort than sebaceous cysts.
Ingrown hairs can often appear around the vulva from shaving and other types of hair removal processes. Check out this Vulvapedia article on how to prevent shaving-induced ingrown hairs.
A diagnosis is primarily based on the appearance of the skin. The skin infection is shallow, superficial and benign. You may want to get an initial diagnosis to make sure what you're dealing with is really an ingrown hair and not a more serious condition.
Herpes (or Herpes Simplex Virus) is a common and usually mild infection that can cause "cold sores" or "fever blisters" on the mouth or face (known as "oral herpes") and similar symptoms in the genital area ("genital herpes"). There are two types of herpes simplex virus (HSV): HSV-1 and HSV-2.
Click here (NSFW) to see a photograph of what genital herpes looks like.
To get more information on this very common STI, check out this Vulvapedia article on HSV.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a common condition. There are about 100 different types of HPV which affect various parts of the body in different ways. Most common warts, like plantar warts and butcher’s warts, are caused by strains of HPV. Around 30 strains of HPV are sexually transmitted.
Sexually-transmitted strains of HPV are generally classified as either “high risk” or “low risk.” Low-risk strains of HPV are most commonly associated with genital warts, while high-risk strains are associated with cervical dysplasia and, in rare cases, cervical cancer.
As the CDC explains, "Genital warts [the most well-known ailment caused by HPV] usually appear as soft, moist, pink, or flesh-colored swellings, usually in the genital area. They can be raised or flat, single or multiple, small or large, and sometimes cauliflower shaped. They can appear on the vulva, in or around the vagina or anus, on the cervix, and on the penis, scrotum, groin, or thigh. After sexual contact with an infected person, warts may appear within weeks or months, or not at all."
Click here (NSFW) to see a photograph of one woman's genital warts.
To get more information on this very common condition, check out this Vulvapedia article on HPV.
NOTES AND DISCLAIMERS: This FAQ (and VP) is no substitute for medical care. Much of the information above has been adapted from the indicated sources. Click on the links to see their original text or to get more information. Any non-quoted items come from the VP Team's personal experience, which, again, is no substitute for medical care. As always, there is a limit to the information internet resources can provide; if you require additional assistance, it's best to contact an appropriate professional.