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The Bartholin’s (BAHR-toe-linz) glands are located on each side of the vaginal opening. These glands secrete fluid that helps lubricate the vagina.
Sometimes the openings of these glands become obstructed, causing fluid to back up into the gland. The result is relatively painless swelling called a Bartholin’s cyst. If the fluid within the cyst becomes infected, you may develop a collection of pus surrounded by inflamed tissue (abscess).
A Bartholin’s cyst or abscess is common. Treatment of a Bartholin’s cyst depends on the size of the cyst, how painful the cyst is and whether the cyst is infected.
Sometimes home treatment is all you need. In other cases, surgical drainage of the Bartholin’s cyst is necessary. If an infection occurs, antibiotics may be helpful to treat the infected Bartholin’s cyst.
Bartholin’s Cyst Causes
A Bartholin’s cyst develops when the duct exiting the Bartholin’s gland becomes blocked. The fluid produced by the gland then accumulates, causing the gland to swell and form a cyst. An abscess occurs when a cyst becomes infected.
Bartholin’s abscesses can be caused by any of a number of bacteria. These include bacterial organisms that cause sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhea as well as bacteria normally found in the intestinal tract, such as Escherichia coli. It is common for these abscesses to involve more than one type of organism.
Around 1 in every 50 women will develop a Bartholin’s cyst or abscess at some point. It usually affects sexually active women aged between 20 and 30.
Bartholin’s cysts don’t usually affect children because the Bartholin’s glands don’t start functioning until puberty. The cysts are also uncommon after the menopause as this usually causes the Bartholin’s glands to shrink.
Preventing Bartholin’s cysts
It’s not clear exactly why Bartholin’s cysts develop, so it isn’t usually possible to prevent them.
However, as some are thought to be linked to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), practising safe sex (using a condom every time you have sex) can help reduce your chances of developing one.
Symptoms of a Bartholin’s cyst
A symptom is something the patient senses and describes, while a sign is something other people, such as the doctor notice. For example, drowsiness may be a symptom while dilated pupils may be a sign.
It is not uncommon for a woman to have a Bartholin’s cyst and not know about it until she is examined by a doctor. Normally, there are no symptoms, apart from a slight lump in the labia (the lips of the female genitalia).
Larger cysts can cause discomfort and pain in the vulva, especially during sexual intercourse, or while walking or sitting.
The cyst usually only develops in one of the two glands.
Abscess – if an infection develops there may be a collection of pus, which can be painful. The patient may also have a fever. The abscess can develop very quickly. The skin in the affected area may become red, tender and hot.
Treating a Bartholin’s cyst
If you have a lump in your genitals, get it checked by your GP.
If it turns out to be a Bartholin’s cyst and it doesn’t bother you, it’s often better to leave it alone.
If the cyst is painful, your GP may recommend:
- soaking the cyst for 10 to 15 minutes in a few inches of warm water (it’s easier in the bath) – it’s best to do this several times a day for three or four days if possible
- holding a warm compress (a flannel or cotton wool warmed with hot water) against the area
- taking painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
Always read the manufacturer’s instructions when using over-the-counter medication.