It’s unmistakable, uncomfortable, and all but impossible to ignore. Dealing with vaginal irritation can be a major distraction, especially when you aren’t totally sure what’s causing it.

In general, vaginal irritation is characterized by some combination of inflammation, burning, pain or itching. Although you can definitely experience irritation and nothing else, it’s usually a symptom of a larger issue like an infection or chemical reaction. Irritation can go away on its own, but sometimes it requires medical treatment. It all depends on what’s causing it in the first place.

If the symptom you’re experiencing feels like deep internal pain — especially during sex — then that’s a different problem entirely. Worried about what it means if you have a shallow or loose vagina? Well look here and here for information on those conditions. Experiencing urinary incontinence? Allow us to direct your attention right this way, instead.

Here, we’ll look at the most common causes of vaginal irritation — and how to deal with them.

Yeast Infections

Bacterial Infections

Other types of infections, usually caused by bacteria, can also lead to vaginal irritation. As with yeast infections, you’ll likely experience some additional symptoms. Most noticeably, your vaginal discharge will be different in appearance, smell, and texture, depending on the specific infection. For example, bacterial vaginosis is often identified by discharge with a fishy odor.

If you think you have a bacterial infection, talk to your doctor, who will determine the best course of treatment.

Allergic Reactions

The skin around your genitals is very sensitive, much more so than, say, the skin on your arm. So, if you try a new brand of soap, detergent, tampon, toilet paper, or underwear, you could easily react to something in the products to which you aren’t accustomed or are downright allergic. Dr. Shirazian recommends icing the area and, if needed, applying a mild steroid like a hydrocortisone cream to allow the irritation to clear up.

Preventing another flare up couldn’t be simpler: Once you determine the fragrance or ingredient that caused the irritation, you just have to be careful and avoid using products that include it in the future. If the source of your reaction was a type of fabric, you’re best off sticking with breathable cotton underwear.

Dryness

If you’re postmenopausal or over 50, Dr. Shirazian adds one more possible cause of irritation to the list: dryness. This could be due to the changes in hormones that occur with age or it could be part of another condition relating to menopause. (Though research has found that this symptom can also arise due to depression, stress, as a result of cigarette smoking, breastfeeding or pregnancy. Fun!)

Either way, she says that you can treat it using an estrogen cream (if you are postmenopausal) or water-based lubricant. Once you address your vaginal dryness, your irritation should dissipate, too.

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