There's a relatable meme out in the digital yonder that says, “When I get a blocked nose, I fully sit and think about times when my nose wasn’t blocked and how I took it for granted.” Like many of the best memes, you can swap in various situations, and the message will still ring true. Take vaginal itching, for instance. When all is quiet on the southern front, you likely don't think about how lucky you are. But when your vagina is relentlessly irritated, the itching can consume your thoughts to the point where it's hard to focus on anything else.
Here, nine common reasons behind an itchy vagina—plus how to find relief.
“When people are stressed, they have certain habits—it could be scratching your head, biting your nails, whatever your thing is,” Sherry Ross, M.D., ob/gyn and women's health expert in Santa Monica, California, and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women's Intimate Health. Period, tells SELF. Scratching down below isn't an unusual self-soothing mechanism when stressed, she says, and it can lead to what she calls an itch-scratch cycle. Not only do you get used to scratching when you’re stressed, that activity can create microtears that only result in more itching.
“This is a very common problem, but it’s not something people always talk about with their doctors…it’s a very sensitive topic,” Dr. Ross says. But it's worth bringing up. Sometimes it's about finding another way to deal with your stress—or speaking with a mental health expert who can help you determine the best course of action.
More From SELF
2. Yeast infections
This infamous cause of vaginal irritation can make even the strongest-willed among us have to sit on her hands to avoid scratching that itch. “If somebody has itching and white, cottage cheesey discharge, it’s reasonably safe to make the assumption it’s a yeast infection,” Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale Medical School, tells SELF. If you’ve had diagnosed yeast infections before and your symptoms match, you might feel comfortable grabbing an OTC treatment, like Monistat, she says. That’s especially convenient because visits to the doctor for diagnosis can add up.
But ideally—especially if you’ve never experienced these symptoms before—you’ll see a doctor for diagnosis to be absolutely sure a yeast infection is the issue. “What happens is women get an itch and think, ‘I must have a yeast infection,’” Dr. Ross says. But if they’ve mistaken a different condition for a yeast infection, “they go to CVS, start self-treating, and then it can get worse.”
3. Irritating hygiene products
“The vulva and vagina are some of the most sensitive tissues in the body to any allergies,” Dr. Minkin says, adding that she always jokes about January being a good month for business due to vaginitis, or vaginal inflammation. “So many people get bubble baths [as gifts], which leads to a lot of itching and burning because a lot of the agents are allergens.”
Dr. Ross agrees: “Some of the most common reasons [for vaginal itching] are going to be right in your bathroom.” Maybe the culprit is [feminine hygiene wipes](http://www.self.com/story/lo-bosworth-vaginal-hygiene) you’re using, fragrant soaps, or scented menstrual pads. You know the ones—Ross describes them as supposedly “smelling like Hawaii or walking through a garden.” That’s not how your vagina is supposed to smell, and the chemicals in these products can be extremely irritating.
“If you think about your face, it’s a very sensitive skin region,” Dr. Ross says. “Your vagina is really no different. I cringe when people use the same soap in the shower to clean their underarms that they use for their vagina when they wouldn’t do that with their face.” This doesn’t mean you need to buy a separate wash for your nether regions, but if you’re experiencing irritation, switching to the most gentle, hypoallergenic products you can find is a good idea, Dr. Minkin says. The less complicated, the better.
And if you’re prone to irritation, these guidelines also go for laundry detergents and fabric softeners, which can be too harsh as well, Dr. Ross says.
4. Sexually transmitted infections
A whole host of STIs can make their presence known with itching (although they don’t always, since many can be asymptomatic), Dr. Minkin says.
Herpes, which is very common and can lead to cold sores on the mouth along with sores around the vagina, can cause itching. Same goes for chlamydia, a prevalent bacterial infection (particularly in women under 25) and gonorrhea, another bacterial infection that’s especially common in that age range. They can both also change your discharge, making it look yellow or green.
Genital warts, which are caused by human papillomavirus—the most common STD, which has no cure—can also lead to itching and irritation, as can trichomoniasis, the most common curable STD.
5. Bacterial vaginosis
When your vagina's bacterial balance gets thrown out of whack, it can lead to bacterial vaginosis, which can cause rampant itchiness. Beyond that, you can expect discharge that’s gray or grayish white and fishy-smelling. Its similar presentation to a yeast infection is one reason why Dr. Ross recommends having a doctor check out any strange vaginal symptoms before assuming you know what's up. Once your doctor determines that you have this infection, they’ll prescribe antibiotics for you to take either orally or vaginally.
6. Spermicide or condoms
Whether it’s because of an actual latex allergy or just an irritated reaction to a spermicide, the products you use during sex can lead to itching. Having a latex allergy—in which case, you can switch to polyurethane rubbers—is less common than having your garden-variety inflamed reaction to a chemical in your condoms or lube, Dr. Ross says. If you find your vagina is constantly irritated after having sex, check out these six ingredients you may want to avoid during the act.
7. Skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis
Basically anything that can afflict the skin on the rest of your body can crop up below the belt, too. That includes conditions like eczema, which presents with an inflamed breakout that can vary in color from reddish to the same color as your skin or a bit lighter, and which can harden into a scaly appearance if left untreated. This also extends to psoriasis, which can also present with red, scaly, itchy flare-ups.
In addition to these conditions, post-menopausal women may get lichen sclerosus of the vulva, Dr. Minkin says. Besides itching, lichen sclerosus can cause patches or spots of skin that look lighter than your usual skin color and are blotchy, wrinkled, or painful.
If it seems like a dermatological issue is behind your itchy vulva, doctors will either do a skin biopsy to diagnose it or use plain ol' common sense. “If someone has psoriasis all over their body and it looks like psoriasis [on their vulva], I’ll assume it’s the same thing,” Dr. Minkin says.
8. Vaginal atrophy
This condition usually flares up during and after menopause. “The further a woman is into menopause, the higher likelihood of vaginal atrophy being a problem,” Dr. Minkin says.
When the body’s estrogen production drops due to the natural aging process, it can cause thinning of the vaginal tissue, leading to what experts call vaginal atrophy. This umbrella term encompasses issues like itching, pain, vaginal dryness, and urinary problems after menopause. Luckily, vaginal moisturizers are available to reduce discomfort.
“One thing I try to make sure people understand is the difference between lube and moisturizers,” Dr. Minkin says. “Lubes are things one uses at the time of sex that don’t give you lasting relief, whereas vaginal moisturizers tend to have a longer-lasting effect.” Replens is a common moisturizer doctors will recommend, and if you'd like other options, they can discuss estrogen-based products you may be interested in trying.
9. Vulvar cancer (in extremely rare cases)
Vulvar cancer isn’t common, with an estimated 4,900 women in the United States receiving the diagnosis each year, per the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. It’s especially uncommon in young women, with 65 being the average age at diagnosis. But when someone does have vulvar cancer, one of the telltale symptoms is itching, burning, or discomfort of the vulva, Dr. Minkin explains.
“If you have a persistent itch, I would say it’s worth seeing a doctor about it,” Dr. Minkin says. Chances are highly unlikely that it’s cancer—but odds are much better that your doctor will be able to help you get to the bottom of your irritation.