If you’ve ever morphed into a (panicked) Dr. Google, issues with your vagina probably tops your list of whys. After all, odd smells, rashes and irritation or mysterious bumps can be anxiety-inducing reasons to schedule an emergency gyno appointment — but that’s exactly what you should do if you notice something unusual happening “down there.”
“First and foremost, don’t try to be your own doctor! Please seek care and have someone take a look; avoiding care because of embarrassment can lead to worsening symptoms and more extensive treatment,” says Beri Ridgeway, M.D., chair of Obstetrics/Gynecology & Women’s Health Institute at Cleveland Clinic. “Trust me — we’ve seen it all — you can’t surprise us, and this is why we’re here.”
Still, we know you might still be tempted to do a little digging (while you wait for your appointment to arrive, of course), so here are some common reasons you may have a lump or bump on your vagina.
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1. It’s an ingrown hair
This is one of the most common causes for bumps on the genital region. When a pubic hair grows back into the skin instead of popping up out of the surface, it can form a small bump that may look red, says Dr. Ridgeway. Though innocent enough, hair bumps can be itchy, tender when swollen and even filled with pus. Resist the urge to go from Dr. Google to Dr. Pimple Popper — it’ll eventually heal on its own, and popping it or playing with it can make it stick around even longer. Ingrown hairs are often caused by shaving or other hair removal methods, so if you notice them happening frequently, consider going au naturale for a bit.
2. It’s caused by irritation
“Very commonly, bumps can occur on the vulva from irritation. These can be associated with burning or itching, and the bumps themselves tend to be centered around the irritated hair follicles in question, and appear small, red and raised,” says Ambica Sastry, M.D., obstetrician-gynecologist in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science at Mount Sinai West and Mount Sinai Morningside in New York City. Everything from your hair removal products and techniques, to prolonged exposure to moisture from sweat or urine can trigger an uncomfy reaction. You may also be sensitive to topicals like lubricants, vaginal cleansers, soap and even laundry detergent.
3. It could be monkeypox
Try not to panic, but the monkeypox virus can cause bumps on various parts of the body, including the genital and rectal region. “Monkeypox appearance can vary widely, and it is recommended — if you are concerned that you may have had an exposure—to seek testing and refrain from sexual contact until your results return,” says Dr. Sastry. Monkeypox lesions may be raised and filled with pus (sort of like a blister), round and firm to the touch or scabby.
4. Maybe it’s eczema
Eczema is an inflammatory skin condition often characterized by an itchy, patchy rash. But depending on the type of eczema you have, you may develop blister-like lesions or red and raised bumps. Whether you have a history of eczema, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor if you notice new bumps around your vagina that you haven’t experienced before — they can help determine the best treatment approach.
5. It might be an infected sweat gland
The medical name for this is hidradenitis suppurativa, and appearance can vary from single isolated lesions to larger lesions with tracts that form below the skin surface, explains Dr. Sastry. These bumps tend to form where skin rubs against skin, such as the vaginal area, buttocks or armpits, and they may look like blackheads (yes, the type you get on your face), pea-sized lumps that are painful, fluid-filled bumps or a train of connected bumps. It may also start with just one bump, with more bumps forming over time.
6. It may be molluscum contagiosum
This is a skin infection that’s more commonly seen in children but can also affect adults, particularly if you have a compromised immune system; it’s caused by a virus and is spread through close skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual, after coming in contact with an object an infected person has touched or after spending time in pools or hot tubs that have been contaminated by the virus. “Molluscum contagiosum often looks like small raised bumps with little dimples in the center,” Dr. Sastry says.
7. You have a cyst
“A cyst can present in many different ways; they appear white or clear, they can be tiny or quite large, and they can be located in all areas of the vulva,” says Dr. Ridgeway. A cyst is a pocket of tissue that can be filled with fluid, air, or other material, and often form when a gland or duct becomes clogged — Bartholin cysts in particular form when glands on each side of the vaginal opening become obstructed, forming a fluid-filled lump that can be painful or grow large if it becomes infected. Some women develop cysts after trauma to the vaginal walls (like childbirth or surgery). If a cyst doesn’t go away on its own, your doctor can drain or remove it.
8. It could be HPV
Certain strains of human papilloma virus (HPV) cause genital warts, which are typically flesh colored and raised and often aren’t accompanied by any other symptoms, says Dr. Ridgeway. These warts can grow anywhere on, in, or around the female genitalia, including the cervix. They may grow clustered together to form a cauliflower-like shape, and can itch.
9. Or herpes
Genital herpes is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection — one in six Americans have it. But unless you’re having a full-blown outbreak with sores or blisters (which is what you probably think of when you hear “herpes”), it can present with few symptoms other than a small bump you may mistake for a pimple or ingrown hair.
10. It may be a symptom of cancer
Before you panic, know that your bump is much more likely to be caused by something much less scary, but a bump can be a sign of some types of cancers. Vulvar cancer can produce lumps that are red, pink or white, and may feel rough or thick to the touch, as a symptom, and vaginal cancer, while rare, can also cause a lump. “It can be scary, but even cancer is curable when diagnosed early,” says Dr. Ridgeway.
11. It could signal the presence of pre-cancerous cells
Depending on the type of cancer, clusters of abnormal cells may form, and they have the potential to undergo more changes and develop into the full-blown disease of cancer. These pre-cancerous cells may cause bumps or lumps that are a different skin pigmentation than the rest of your skin in that region, they may itch, and they may grow in size. Any time you notice something that doesn’t seem quite right or hasn’t always been there, talk to your doctor right away.
12. It’s possible it’s syphilis
Though not the most common type of sexually transmitted infection, people still get syphilis and small bumps called gummas can develop as a complication of the disease. Earlier symptoms include a small painless sore and a body-wide rash.
When to see a doctor:
Put your mind at ease ASAP when you notice a bump by paying your doctor a visit. He or she will know the best way to proceed for any of these (or other) diagnoses.
Alyssa is a senior editor for the Hearst Lifestyle Group Health Newsroom, supporting Prevention, Good Housekeeping, and Woman’s Day. She previously worked at Reader’s Digest, where she was Research chief, responsible for the health vertical of their site, and edited health content for the print product and special projects. She has also freelanced for Chowhound, HealthiNation.com, Huffington Post, and more.