From thrush to a vaginal infection, here are 10 reasons why you might be suffering, and how to stop vaginal itching.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Claire Chamberlain
Vaginal itching is not only uncomfortable and infuriating (after all, scratching your vagina in public is not exactly socially acceptable behaviour), it can also be worrying.
While most vaginal itching is not a cause for concern and can be easily remedied, you should talk to your doctor or gynaecologist if you are worried or if the itching becomes unbearable.
Causes of vaginal itching
We speak to consultant gynaecologist Mr Narendra Pisal about the common (and less common) reasons for vaginal itching:
- Vaginal candidiasis
‘The commonest cause of vaginal itching, if it’s short term, is vaginal candidiasis,’ says Pisal. ‘Also known as thrush or a yeast infection, this is a common infection and is associated with whitish, curd-like discharge and symptoms of itching.’
Treatment: Vaginal candidiasis can be easily treated by using a Clotrimazole vaginal pessary or taking an oral Fluconazole 150mg tablet, which can be obtained over the counter without a prescription. Creams containing Clotrimazole to help resolve thrush and relieve symptoms can also be bought over the counter.
- Bacterial vaginosis
‘Bacterial Vaginosis is a common infection of the vagina that can occur when the natural balance of the bacteria in the vagina changes,’ says Pisal. ‘This can cause intense vaginal irritation and itching.’
Treatment: Pisal explains that a visit to your GP or gynaecologist will be necessary to have swabs taken to confirm the diagnosis. Appropriate treatment can then be advised and involves either pessaries or oral antibiotics.
- Skin conditions
‘Another common cause of vulval itching is a condition called Lichen Sclerosus,’ says Pisal. This is particularly likely if your symptoms have been going on for a while. It presents as a patchy white rash and is common in the genital area (although it can appear elsewhere on the body, too).
Treatment: ‘This is a condition that is very easy to control, but not that easy to cure,’ reveals Pisal. ‘You will need to see a specialist for an expert opinion and diagnosis. They are likely to prescribe a mild steroid cream, which will control the symptoms.’
- Menopausal changes
‘Lack of oestrogen after menopause can make the vaginal mucosa and vulval skin more prone to breaking and irritation,’ explains Pisal.
Treatment: A topical oestrogen cream or pessary can help.
‘Many women aren’t aware that breastfeeding can cause the vaginal mucosa to become more atrophic, and prone to dryness and irritation,’ explains Pisal.
Treatment: Try using a lube to alleviate dryness and irritation. This water based lubricant should do the trick.
- Allergic reaction
Used a new shower gel, bubble bath or clothes detergent recently? The root of your irritating itch could be down to something as simple as a skin allergy.
‘Another common cause of itching symptoms is an allergic reaction to either fabric softener, sanitary products or soap products used for washing,’ reveals Pisal.
Treatment: ‘You can see if your symptoms are relieved by changing these products, or using an antihistamine medication which can be obtained without a prescription,’ advises Pisal.
- Vulval warts/condylomas
While the majority of sexually transmitted diseases are not usually associated with itching, there is one that most definitely is.
‘Genital warts can cause itching,’ says Pisal. ‘These appear as single or multiple projections [growths or lumps] with an irregular surface, and are caused by low-risk strains of human papilloma virus (HPV).’
Treatment: ‘Since the HPV vaccination programme started, the incidence of warts has gone down,’ says Pisal. ‘Warts will often resolve spontaneously, but can need treatment with topical cream or cryocauterisation [freezing].’
It’s important to visit your GP if you think you have genital warts, where you will likely be referred to a sexual health clinic.
Both ends of the hygiene spectrum can play a part in vulval and vaginal itching. If you sit around in sweaty gym clothes or don’t change your underwear daily, you could end up with an itch. But similarly, scented shower products, feminine hygiene sprays, bubble baths, scented panty liners and even coloured toilet paper can all cause irritation.
Treatment: ‘Simple precautions should be followed, such as changing out of gym clothes as soon as possible, using simple moisturising soaps for washing, and getting out of that ‘itch-scratch-itch’ vicious cycle,’ says Pisal.
While less common, stress may cause itching in the vaginal and vulval area. Stress can also affect your sleep and weaken your immune system, which may make you more susceptible to infection.
Treatment: It is important to get to the root of your stress and find stress-busting techniques that work for you.
- Cancerous or precancerous patch
If you notice itching, please don’t panic or jump to this conclusion – vulval cancer is extremely rare. One of the above reasons is a far more likely cause of your itch than cancer. However, if your symptoms persist, it’s important to visit your doctor, to rule out anything more serious.
‘Fortunately, this is not common, but is still possible,’ agrees Pisal. ‘If your symptoms are persistent, you should always see a gynaecologist, so that an appropriate diagnosis can be made and treatment can be started.’ Vulval cancer is more common in older women.
Treatment: ‘If you are diagnosed with vulval cancer or pre-cancer, treatment usually is by local excision and occasionally more treatment may be needed,’ says Piscal.