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Labia problems

7-minute read

Key facts

  • The labia are the skin folds or lips that are part of your vulva; they look different from person to person.
  • Labia problems can make you feel itchy or be painful.
  • If you notice a change or a problem with your labia you should check with your doctor.

What are the labia?

The labia are the 'lips' or folds of skin on the outside of the vulva (female genitals). Your labia protect the clitoris, vagina and urethra. The labia swell during sexual activity. There are two pairs of labia.

Labia majora

The labia majora are the outer lips and are usually larger. They are covered with public hair.

Labia minora

The labia minora are the smaller inner lips, around your vaginal and urethral opening (part of your urinary system). There is no hair on the labia minora.

Looking after your labia

It's a good idea to get to know your labia so you can see if there are any changes that might be signs of a problem. Try using a small mirror to have a look.

It's normal for the labia to smell a little musty or like sweat. The skin of the labia is sensitive. The labia and vulva can become infected or irritated.

Here are some tips for looking after your labia:

  • Wash regularly with warm water or mild soap (no perfumed or antibacterial products or talcum powder).
  • Avoid using bubble baths.
  • Do not scrub your labia or use a douche (wash inside the vagina).
  • Change out of wet clothing after swimming or exercising.
  • Wear cotton or natural fibres next to your skin.
  • Use unscented or hypoallergenic laundry products for your underwear.
  • Avoid tight jeans or clothes that may irritate your vulval area.
  • Use 100% cotton sanitary products. If the menstrual blood on a pad irritates your skin try tampons or a menstrual cup.
  • Use water-based lubricants if needed during sex.

If you have a labia condition, a cool gel pack can help with discomfort.

What are the symptoms of labia problems

You might notice:

  • burning or itching
  • a crawling feeling under the skin
  • redness or swelling
  • cracked or split skin
  • a change of skin colour
  • pain during sex

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What health conditions affect the labia?

Most labia problems are not serious and can be easily treated. You could have:

  • ingrown hairs after hair removal
  • an allergy to a skincare product or detergent
  • swelling of the labia due to friction from sex
  • an infection with a virus, bacteria or candida
  • vulvovaginitis

Vulvovaginitis is an irritation that can include the labia, other parts of the vulva, and the vagina that is not caused by infection. It's often caused by chemical irritants such as bubble bath, soaps and other products. It can also be caused by tight fitting underwear, or excess moisture (e.g. from sweating). Vulvovaginitis is most often seen in children.

There are some conditions that are more serious.

Skin conditions

If you have a skin condition such as dermatitis (eczema) or psoriasis you can have symptoms appear on your labia.

Other skin conditions that can affect the labia include lichen sclerosus or lichen planus. These can lead to severe itching, burning or stinging, and painful sex. They are thought to be caused by autoimmune disorders.

If they're not treated, these conditions can cause scarring. Talk to your doctor about treatments such as steroids and pain relief medicines.

Infections

If your labia are swollen, it could be a sign of:

  • a yeast infection
  • an imbalance of bacteria in your vagina
  • an allergy
  • an infection

Talk to your doctor if the swelling getting worse or you also have:

  • pain
  • itching
  • a strong smell
  • an unusual discharge from your vagina
  • a lump or bump on your labia

They can provide treatment depending on what's causing the swelling.

Bacterial vaginosis is a bacterial infection of the vagina that occurs when the normal balance of bacteria changes. The main symptoms are a white discharge and a strong fishy odour.

Bartholin's cysts

The Bartholin's glands are on each side of your vagina. If they get blocked, a cyst (a tender or painful lump) can form. The cyst can become infected, with a build-up of pus that will need to be treated with antibiotics. Sometimes Bartholin's cysts can develop into an abscess.

Genital warts

Genital warts are bumps that can appear on the labia and other parts of your genitals. They are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and can be spread by sexual activity. The warts often go away by themselves but if they are painful or itchy, talk to your doctor about wart treatments.

Genital herpes

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). It can cause blisters or sores on your labia that come back throughout life. If you think you have genital herpes, it's important to see a doctor as soon as possible so you can start treatment. Make sure you use condoms and dental dams during sex because you can pass the virus on to your partner.

Vulval cancer

Vulval cancer is uncommon but there are some types of cancer that could occur in your vulval or anal area.

Are my labia a normal shape and size?

The size, shape and colour of the labia are different in each person. They may not be symmetrical (equal on each side). Your labia may change as you grow older and your hormone levels change.

Labial hypertrophy and labiaplasty

Labial hypertrophy is when one or both labia are larger than usual.

The labia might be enlarged, one lip might be larger than the other, or the labia minora might be longer than the labia majora.

Labial hypertrophy is harmless. It does not tend to affect your sex life, but it can be uncomfortable or embarrassing. It might make it difficult to keep your labia clean.

Labiaplasty is a type of surgery for people who are badly affected by labial hypertrophy.

Fused labia

Fused labia happens when the labia majora are joined together. It's quite common in children and the labia usually separate by the time the child finishes puberty.

The best thing to do is leave the labia alone. If your child is having problems because of a fused labia (for example, with going to the toilet) talk to your doctor about what to do.

When should I see my doctor?

It's a good idea to see your doctor if you have symptoms that worry you, such as:

  • itching that won't go away
  • pain
  • a burning feeling when you urinate (wee)
  • a new lump or cyst
  • new or unusual discharge

You can ask to see a female doctor.

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Last reviewed: June 2023


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