Down There Self-Care

No One Talks About Bartholin's Cysts, & That Needs To Change

Got a painful vaginal bump? It’s more common than you think.

Bartholin's cysts might not sound familiar, but you've probably had one and didn't even know it.
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Ever heard of a Bartholin's cyst? Probably not... but that doesn't mean you haven't experienced one. You probably just didn't realize what it was! Our mamas and grandmamas loved to not talk about their bodies and bodily issues. Thankfully, we now know how dangerous that sort of hush-hush mentality can be. That's why PCOS research and care are more advanced than ever and why we now openly discuss things like ovarian cysts and abortion. Our generation is more open to not just talking about but also caring for our bodies.

Part of that conversation is knowing some of the things that can go wrong "down there." From tracking your period to proper grooming, there's a lot to be aware of — and plenty that can go wrong. With Bartholin's (pronounced “BAHR-toe-linz”) cysts, for example, your vagina can go from feeling fine and fancy-free to being swollen and in a ton of pain basically overnight.

And considering no one seems to be talking about this, it can be downright alarming when it happens to you. Before you go doom-spiraling through WebMD, convincing yourself this is some rare vaginal tumor, take a beat. It's time to make Bartholin's cysts a little less surprising.

What is a Bartholin's cyst?

Before we can answer this properly, we need to go over a bit of anatomy. Many people with female reproductive organs call everything between their legs the vagina; they don't know the proper terms for the various parts of their bodies. You might call it by any number of slang terms, like "down there" or vajayjay. But talking about Bartholin's cysts will require a basic knowledge of the anatomy between your legs. A handy dandy diagram might help.

Bartholin’s cysts are found on either side of the vaginal opening.

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A Bartholin's cyst is, at the most basic, a cyst that forms on either side of the vaginal opening in the Bartholin's glands. That's an important distinction to remember because location is everything. If you're finding lumps or bumps in other places "down there," it could be anything from an ingrown hair, an STI, or just a different kind of cyst. Bartholin's cysts specifically occur at the opening of the vagina. When the Bartholin's glands swell, they feel like a lump or knot and can be very painful.

What causes Bartholin’s cysts?

Like an ingrown hair or clogged tear duct, your Bartholin gland can become clogged or obstructed. When this happens, the Bartholin gland begins to fill with fluid. What causes the obstruction? Literally anything.

Let's start by clearing something up: Issues with your vagina are almost always wrongly connected to your cleanliness, and that's just untrue. You could be the cleanest vagina-haver in the world and still experience issues (everyone does at some point).

Among the causes of Bartholin's cysts, the Mayo Clinic lists "bacteria or injury." An injury could range from a shaving nick to a rash caused by hair removal lotions to a nip from a fingernail. Bacteria is also a pretty loose term. Something as simple as a not-very-clean hot tub to a sweaty hike at the nature preserve could both be enough to trigger an issue with your Bartholin's glands.

What do Bartholin’s cysts feel like?

These cysts can be so common and small that many people may never notice they have one. Other times, your Bartholin’s cyst might swell to a tender-when-touched pea-sized lump. Even wiping or wearing jeans can hurt. You might have pain during intercourse, or develop a fever. It sucks.

If your Bartholin’s cyst doesn’t clear itself in a timely manner, it can become an abscess. When this happens, you could be dealing with a much bigger lump. Think: A roll of quarters in your panties. It's also much more painful.

How do you treat Bartholin’s cysts?

There are several ways Bartholin’s cysts are treated.

At Home

  • Sitz baths: This can be done in a tub with only a few inches of warm water or using a special sitz pan in your toilet. You can purchase one at most pharmacies.
  • Warm compresses: Make sure you’re changing your washcloth each time so that you’re not making things worse with more bacteria.
  • Natural remedies: The internet might also suggest certain essential oils or first-aid lotions to help with pain and disinfection. These can be useful — if you know what you’re getting yourself into. Always make sure you test for allergies on the inside of your elbow first, and make sure you’re using things as they’re intended to be used. (i.e., Some oils are for diffusing only.) Never, ever attempt to rupture your lump. Before using any home remedies you read about, it’s advisable to consult a medical professional.

At the Doctor’s Office

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are cases of Bartholin’s cysts that will require proper medical intervention. Those treatments might look like...

  • Surgical drainage: Only used for cysts that are infected or very large, and always with either general or local anesthesia.
  • Antibiotics: If your cyst gets infected (or turns into an abscess), your doctor might write you a prescription for antibiotics to clear up the infection.
  • Marsupialization: If you have recurring cysts, your doctor might suggest marsupialization. This consists of a drainage incision being made, followed by two stitches on each side. This creates a very small permanent opening. You might have a temporary catheter placed to help with the initial drainage.

When should you see a doctor?

If you’re feeling pain or discomfort for more than two to three days or your lump becomes larger than a pea, see a doctor immediately. If you’re running a fever, it might also be a good idea to at least call in and see if you should be seen. Even an urgent care center or Planned Parenthood can see you and prescribe you something.