Picture the scene: You’re in the shower, washing your body, and suddenly you notice a bump on your vulva. Finding pimples is never enjoyable, and you’ve probably dealt with your fair share on your face, chest, or back. But your pubic area? That’s more of a novelty.
If you notice a small pus-filled bump or lesion in your pubic area, you might describe it as a vaginal boil because lumps and bumps can certainly appear boil-like. However, while the word “vaginal boil” may be a good description, it’s not actually medically accurate.
This is for a simple reason, and we’re going to need to rewind to your biology class days to help explain why. While the terms vulva and vagina are often used interchangeably, your vagina is actually inside your body. The part that you can see on the outside is the vulva, and the vagina is the canal that attaches your vulva to your cervix, which is the lower part of your uterus. Not entirely clear on it all? Check out this article on female anatomy with diagrams for some help.
So, when you say “vaginal boil,” you might actually mean a bump on your vulva, labia, or general pubic area. And “boil” is often used to describe all kinds of lumps and bumps, but it’s not a very precise term. That’s why, if you ever visit a doctor about a vaginal boil, they may diagnose you with something much more specific.
If you think you’ve spotted something that you’d call a vaginal boil but want to get to the bottom of what it really is, two Flo experts outline everything you need to know.
What is a vaginal boil?
First things first, you might be curious as to what a boil on your vulva is. Put simply, a boil or furuncle is a tender, pus-filled bump on your pubic area. It might appear reddish or purple.
If you notice a bump or lesion in your vagina — that’s the part of your genital anatomy that’s inside, remember — then you should speak to your doctor right away. Dr. Ruth Arumala, obstetrician and gynecologist, Texas, US, explains that, while it’s incredibly uncommon, this kind of symptom may indicate a cyst, or in even rarer cases, it could be a sign of cancer.
But if you’re looking at a small pus-filled bump or pimple-like spot on the skin surrounding your vagina — so on your vulva or your general pubic area — this is what doctors call a “pustule” or a “vulvar lesion.” It can be caused by one of many different things; keep reading to find out what they are
What causes vaginal boils, and how common are they?
Noticing a change to your vulva can be worrying. You’ll know what’s typical for you, so any new lumps and bumps are understandably a bit jarring. However, you might be reassured to know that changes to the skin on your pubic area are generally quite common. It’s something most of us will notice at some point and is often nothing serious.
However, just because they’re common doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to vaginal boils. It’s always good to speak to your doctor about any new spots you find in your pubic area. And depending on the cause of these lumps and bumps, your doctor may be able to treat you. So, what are some of the causes of vaginal boils?
As you know, your vulva is covered in hair follicles — these are where your pubic hair grows from. A condition called folliculitis happens when hair follicles become inflamed, which is usually because of a localized bacterial infection. The lesions will look like little pus-filled bumps or spots and can be itchy or sore.
You might be curious as to how bacteria can get into your hair follicles in the first place. If you choose to remove the hair on your vulva (by shaving or waxing, for example), it can irritate your hair follicles. Similarly, getting in a hot tub and sweating could irritate your hair follicles and allow bacteria that normally live on your skin to get inside them. “Your skin has a bunch of different bacteria on it, and when it gets inflamed, bacteria can get inside of that little pocket and cause a bump or some pain,” explains Dr. Jenna Flanagan, obstetrician and gynecologist, Massachusetts, US.
Luckily, mild forms of folliculitis can go away on their own. You may just need to use a washcloth with warm water and antibacterial soap to wash the area gently. However, if it’s causing you discomfort, or you notice that the tiny pimples are getting bigger, the skin around them is getting red, or they just won’t go away, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor.
Hair removal can be another cause of pesky pimples on your vulva. When you shave or wax, it can cut the hair at a sharp angle which can sometimes mean it grows back into the skin. Hello, ingrown hairs as a result (and the inspiration for lots of people’s favorite squirm-inducing videos online — if you know, you know).
Ingrown hairs can cause inflammation and can appear like red, swollen bumps and can be very painful and itchy. If you’ve been tackling an ingrown hair for a while, speak to your doctor about having it extracted.
An inflamed cyst
When you think of a boil, you probably think of a red lump that’s sensitive to touch and filled with fluid, right? Well, this is actually a pretty good description of what a cyst is. What you might think of as a vaginal boil could actually be an inflamed cyst.
A cyst is a fluid-filled lesion that is like a pocket under the skin. It can be filled with skin cells or sebum (an oil your body produces to help your skin stay moisturized) but not bacteria, like in folliculitis.
“These are just cysts under the skin that you can get anywhere on your body,” says Dr. Flanagan. “They can sometimes get irritated if you’re wearing tight-fitting clothing, if you’re having intercourse and it gets rubbed, or just from general friction, and sometimes they can get a little infected.”
There are a number of different types of cysts that can appear both on your vulva (the part of your pubic area you can see) and in your vagina (the inner part of your genitalia). They include:
- Bartholin’s gland cyst: The Bartholin’s gland can be found at the bottom of your labia majora (the “outside” lips by your vaginal opening). “If you’re searching for it with your finger, usually, you can’t feel it,” says Dr. Flanagan. “Sometimes it can get clogged up and form a small cyst, which people can feel if they push there.” You might not always be able to feel cysts on your Bartholin’s gland, but if it becomes infected, it can be sore.
- Vaginal inclusion cysts: As the name suggests, vaginal inclusion cysts are found on the wall of your vagina, inside your body. They’re caused by irritation or injury, which can happen if you have surgery or give birth.
- Gartner’s duct cysts: Your Gartner duct is found in your pelvis. If it gathers fluid, it can create cysts that can be felt in your vaginal wall.
If you notice any new lumps on your vulva or inside your vagina, you should speak to your doctor. They’ll be able to rule out any serious conditions, diagnose exactly which type of cyst you have, and provide relief if you’re experiencing any pain. They might suggest that you soak the area where the cysts are in a bath at home or have your cysts drained at the clinic. Draining might sound scary, but it’s nothing to be scared of. Your doctor will numb the area before making a small incision in the cyst and draining what’s inside.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
A number of STIs can cause skin lesions that you might identify as boils, for example, herpes and warts. Any new lumps and bumps that you find on your vulva should be checked out by your doctor, especially if you think there’s any chance it could be an STI.
- Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus. Some of the symptoms associated with it include lumps on your pubic area that look like blisters and develop into sores, a fever, itching, and tingling.
- Genital warts are caused by human papillomavirus (HPV). Warts look a little bit like raised skin-colored bumps. Your skin might feel rough around the warts, and they might itch.
There’s currently no known cure for herpes and warts, but if you notice some of these symptoms, your doctor will be able to check you over and offer a diagnosis. Taking your underwear off in your doctor’s office might not sound like your idea of a good time, but remember, they’ve seen it all before. Looking out for your sexual health is such an important step in self-care, and you should never feel embarrassed talking to your doctor about your health.
Are vaginal boils contagious?
Vaginal boils might sound pretty straightforward, but as we now know, they could be linked to a range of conditions. Because of this, it’s impossible to say whether they are or aren’t contagious until you know exactly what you’re dealing with.
For example, ingrown hairs can’t be passed on from person to person, but STIs can. Similarly, some lesions caused by bacteria can be passed on through skin-to-skin contact. If you’re worried about any lumps and bumps on your pubic area, the best thing to do is speak to your doctor.
What should I do if I have a vaginal boil?
If you’ve spotted a new pimple or spot, the tempting thing to do is touch it, right? Dr. Flanagan explains that there are a few things you can do in the first 24 to 48 hours after you notice a new bump — but squeezing it isn’t on the list.
“Don’t use soap, don’t scrub, and try not to poke at it, push at it, or squeeze it. That’s just going to cause more inflammation, which causes more pain,” she says. You may also want to avoid having sex during this time, as it could irritate the skin, and you need to know if you’re at risk of passing anything on to your partner through contact.
Dr. Flanagan suggests, instead, that it might help to soak the area in warm water. “Often, this is enough to open up those pores and allow some bacteria to come out, allowing some drainage to happen spontaneously,” she says. “That’s the goal.”
You can also take over-the-counter pain medication if you’re uncomfortable, avoid tight-fitting clothing, and don’t use lotions or alcohol swabs. If you need to moisturize the area, only use gentle, unscented products.
When is it time to see a doctor for a vaginal boil?
As a rule, if you notice a new lump or bump on your vulva or pubic area, it’s always worth letting your doctor know. It may be nothing to worry about, but it’s always good to be sure.
They will be able to examine the area and run any tests to rule out some conditions. If they think it’s something that will go away over time on its own, then they’ll be able to fill you in on ways you can speed up the healing process.
Vaginal boils: The takeaway
While the term “vaginal boil” is not an accurate medical diagnosis, it can be a good way to explain to your doctor any new lumps and bumps that you’ve found on your vulva or pubic area.
They might not be fun to deal with, but often these lesions aren’t anything to worry about. In all cases, you should avoid touching, scrubbing, or putting anything on the bumps at home. Warm water might help to open up your pores and get rid of some bacteria, but it’s always a good idea to let your doctor know too. They may either tell you to keep doing what you’re doing at home or ask you to come in for an extra check. Hopefully, that boil will be gone before you know it!
Written by Sofia Quaglia