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About Contact or Irritant Dermatitis of the Vulva


Contact dermatitis of the vulva is a skin condition that is caused by exposure to allergens and irritants that produce vulvar and/or vaginal itching and burning when there is no infection.

The skin of the vulva can be very sensitive and is subject to irritation from products such as laundry detergent, fabric softeners, body soaps, deodorized tampons or pads, and feminine hygiene products. Regular use of these products over a period of time causes irritation, burning and itching.

What are the signs and symptoms of contact dermatitis?

  • Mild to severe itching and/or burning of the vulva
  • Vulvar redness and swelling
  • Skin thickening
  • A raw feeling due to irritation
  • A feeling of dampness from the outer vulvar skin surface which "weeps" due to chronic irritation. The dampness may be mistaken for discharge coming from the inside of the vagina and may be believed to be the cause of symptoms.
  • Vulvar pain, in more advanced cases, with insertion of a tampon, speculum, or with intercourse.

How is contact dermatitis of the vulva diagnosed?

  • The skin of the vulva, vagina and anal area are examined to look for common skin changes associated with this condition.
  • During vaginal examination, a sample of the cells of the vaginal wall (obtained with a cotton swab) will look for changes in the cells and rule out signs of infection.

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What is the treatment for contact dermatitis of the vulva?

  • Remove the irritant and avoid future contact. See list of possible irritants below.
  • Apply steroid ointment if prescribed. This will decrease redness, swelling, itching and burning. Steroid ointments should be used only as prescribed by your physician or nurse practitioner because misuse may make your problem worse.
  • Soak in a lukewarm bath with 4-5 tablespoons of baking soda to help soothe vulvar itching and burning. Soak 2-3 times a day for 10-15 minutes. If unable to soak, splash down with cool water after using the bathroom.
  • Petroleum jelly or Crisco® may be applied liberally between applications of steroid ointment.

Symptoms should resolve gradually with these suggestions. If the symptoms persist, or if they intensify, further evaluation and treatment may be needed.

What contact irritants should be avoided?

  • Laundry detergents containing enzymes
  • Fabric softeners and dryer sheets
  • Bath soaps, gels, lotions
  • Bubble bath, oils, bath salts, skin softeners
  • Feminine hygiene sprays, perfumes and powders, vaginal moisturizers and douches
  • Adult and baby wipes or towelettes
  • Deodorant tampons and pads, minipads
  • Contraceptive creams, jellies, foams, and sponges, K-Y® Jelly, Nonoxonyl-9
  • Condoms prepackaged with lubricant or spermicides
  • Colored, perfumed toilet paper
  • Synthetics such as nylon underwear or pantyhose
  • Nail polish
  • Newsprint

Sections courtesy of R. Galask, MD, University of Iowa.

The information on these pages is provided for general information only and should not be used for diagnosis or treatment, or as a substitute for consultation with a physician or health care professional. If you have specific questions or concerns about your health, you should consult your health care professional.

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