If you're suffering from an itchy vagina, you might have hoped that it was just your underwear bunching in strange ways. But after a few days of discomfort, when you realize it's something more permanent, it might be time to take action. Whether it's your actual vagina that's irritating you or the area around your vagina and vulva, something amiss down there is not something you want to ignore.
The good news is that itching is a very common symptom associated with a number of treatable vaginal infections. But the annoying news is that you should probably go to a doctor so they can diagnose the issue before you attempt to ease the itch, says Roshini Raj, MD, a board-certified physician and women's health advocate. "Because it is difficult to figure out which kind of infection it is on your own, it is important to get the correct diagnosis and treatment from your doctor," Dr. Raj says. In most cases, it's best to treat the condition early before the irritation or inflammation becomes more severe, she says.
Before you can see a doctor, however, you might be wondering how to go about your daily life while dealing with this itch. There are a few steps you can take, but "it's mostly what you shouldn't do," says Lauren Streicher, MD, associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s medical school and medical director of the Center for Sexual Health and the Center for Menopause.
Ahead, Dr. Streicher walks us through a step-by-step plan for how to deal with an itchy vagina, so you can feel better — fast.
Take off your underwear.
When you're in bed or just hanging out at home, it can be helpful to go commando and wear loose, baggy clothes, Dr. Streicher says. It's not that going underwear-less will help your vagina "breathe" (although that's a myth many people believe), but it's just better than wearing confining clothes that could irritate your vulvar area further, she says.
Apply a cold compress.
While you wait for other medications to kick in, it might help to put a cold washcloth around your vulvar area, Dr. Streicher says. Or, if you're really sore, an ice pack with a towel around it can provide some relief.
Figure out where the itch is.
Often, people talk about having a "vaginal itch," but really they're referring to vulvar itching, which is not the same thing, Dr. Streicher says. "The vulva are the external tissues, which includes everything on the outside, whereas the vagina is actually what you can't see, what's on the inside," she says. Once you know where the itch is occurring, you can determine what's going on, so your doctor can treat it appropriately, she says.
Take note of other symptoms.
If you are itching on the "outside," look and see if there are any other visible symptoms, like sores or a rash, Dr. Streicher says. "Those are the kinds of things that we need to know right off the bat to even begin to know what it could be, and what to do about it," she says. Or if you're itching on the "inside," do you have any discharge in addition to itching? Often, people assume they just have a yeast infection if they have discharge, but in many cases that's not what's going on, she says.
Rule out a yeast infection.
You may be familiar with the hallmark signs and symptoms of a yeast infection, including itching, burning, and odorless discharge. If you're quite sure that's what's going on, it's okay to use an over-the-counter medication to treat it, Dr. Streicher says. "In most cases, that will take care of the problem," she says. But if it doesn't, or if your discharge smells literally fishy, then you should go to your doctor so they can diagnose the issue, she says.
Leave it alone.
There are lots of different products that are marketed to treat vaginal itchiness and odor, but Dr. Streicher suggests steering clear of those products. For example, some creams and gels for vaginal itching exist, but those are considered "local anesthetics," meaning they'll just temporarily numb the pain but they don't actually treat the infection. Same goes for other topical washes that claim to help vulvar hygiene, she says. "They don't help and are generally more irritating," she says.