Thanks to the weird shame attached to talking about our bodies, many moms have never heard of a "fused labia." However, this easy-to-treat condition is pretty common.
No trip to the emergency room is ever "common" or "normal." And yet sometimes a trip for one ailment turns into a diagnosis for something completely unexpected and, quite frankly, scary. That is often the case when a "fused labia" is diagnosed. You bring your kiddo in for a never-ending belly ache, hoping it's constipation and not appendicitis. The nurses need a urine sample, and when all other efforts to get your babe to pee in a cup or bag fail, they decide to use a catheter. It is awful. And then it gets worse. "We can't cath her. She has a fused labia," a nurse will say as she gently wraps your toddler daughter's lower half back up in her diaper.
Uhhh... what? It's not just a random left turn — it's a left turn onto the wrong side of the street. You're an organized mom. A question-asking, note-taking, always-prepared mom. But you're left speechless at this announcement, and soon enough, the nurse is out of the room. Where do you even start? Until the words "fused labia" were uttered, you probably didn't even know that was a thing. The emergency doctor will tell you that it's not an emergency. That you can get in with the pediatrician, and they'll explain everything.
Because there's still the issue of the hurting back and belly, and because you're still reeling, you'll let it go. Later that night, you'll find yourself, flashlight in hand, trying to examine your daughter's private area while she sleeps, hoping to avoid more trauma for her while coming to understand what you're up against. If you're very brave, you'll even Google the term.
Put down the flashlight. Everything will be OK. Scary Mommy spoke with Dr. Hrishikesh Dattatraya Pai, gynecologist and fertility expert at ClinicSpots, to learn everything a parent should know about this condition.
What is a "fused labia"?
"A fused labia is when the two small, inner lips of the vulva (the labia minora) are stuck together," says Dattatraya Pai. "This can happen on one or both sides. The labia minora usually have a fringed edge and are different sizes on each side. When they're stuck together, they can look like one continuous lip."
While this can happen to anyone, it's most common in babies between one and two years old and kids under the age of 7 — when estrogen is really low. Everything is so small then already. Unless you've had multiple daughters or done a ton of babysitting, it might not be something you even notice right away. Let's face it: During diaper time, it's best for both parties to get in and out as fast as possible.
What causes fused labia?
Your doctor might tell you that fused labia can happen during the diaper-wearing age because of moisture build-up, diaper rub, or diaper rash. That's one guess. However, even the NHS says there are various reasons fusion might occur. (Hence why this is actually pretty common.)
"It's not certain what causes labial fusion, but it usually happens as a result of irritation or inflammation of the vaginal area, known as vaginitis," says the NHS website. "This can cause the inner lips of the vulva to become sticky. Without enough estrogen in the body, which is quite normal before puberty, the lips can stay stuck together and gradually become firmly joined."
Does it hurt?
Sometimes — but usually not. A fused labia is most likely to hurt when you wipe too hard or deep, accidentally attempting to force the labia apart. Wearing tight clothing can cause and irritate fused labia for the same reason.
How is labial fusion fixed?
That ER doc wasn't just sweeping your concerns under the rug. (Though, a bit more explanation would be nice.) It's actually a very simple fix. "If you have fused labia and it's causing discomfort, you can see a doctor or other healthcare provider," says Dattatraya Pai. "They can prescribe medication or recommend a cream or ointment to help relieve the symptoms. In some cases, surgery may be necessary to release the fusion."
Most often, estrogen cream will be prescribed. You'll want to apply a very small amount to the affected area. (Think: A blob smaller than a pencil eraser.) Separation may take a couple of weeks or even months. A good primary care doctor will suggest you come in whenever you're concerned and want things checked out again. Once the labia separates, you'll switch to using Vaseline on the area for several weeks — this gives the area time to heal so it won't just re-adhere.
How can you avoid this condition in the future?
There's no indication that because you've dealt with a fused labia once that it could become an ongoing issue. As long as you follow your doctor's order for proper care and aftercare, you or your child will likely never experience another issue. However, there are steps you can take to avoid a fused labia. They all revolve around doing your best not to irritate the vulva/vagina area.
Dattatraya Pai's tips to avoid fused labia:
- wear loose-fitting clothing
- avoid scratching or rubbing the vulva
- use a mild, unscented soap to clean the area
- avoid using perfumed products, such as scented lotions, on the vulva
- see a healthcare provider if you have any skin conditions, such as eczema or psoriasis, that might be causing irritation
As always, it's best to seek advice from your child's healthcare provider if you have any concerns or suspect your child might have labial fusion.