The Bartholin's 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.
Symptoms of the Bartholin's cyst
If you have a small, noninfected Bartholin's cyst, you may not notice it. If the cyst grows, you might feel a lump or mass near your vaginal opening. Although a cyst is usually painless, it can be tender.
A full-blown infection of a Bartholin's cyst can occur in a matter of days. If the cyst becomes infected, you may experience:
- A tender, painful lump near the vaginal opening
- Discomfort while walking or sitting
- Pain during intercourse
A Bartholin's cyst or abscess typically occurs on only one side of the vaginal opening.
When to see a doctor
Call your doctor if you have a painful lump near the opening of your vagina that doesn't improve after two or three days of self-care — for instance, soaking the area in warm water (sitz bath). If the pain is severe, make an appointment with your doctor right away.
Also call your doctor promptly if you find a new lump near your vaginal opening and you're older than 40. Although rare, such a lump may be a sign of a more serious problem, such as cancer.
Causes of the Bartholin's cyst
Experts believe that the cause of a Bartholin's cyst is a backup of fluid. Fluid may accumulate when the opening of the gland (duct) becomes obstructed, perhaps caused by infection or injury.
A Bartholin's cyst can become infected, forming an abscess. A number of bacteria may cause the infection, including Escherichia coli (E. coli) and bacteria that cause sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea and chlamydia.
Tests and diagnosis of the Bartholin's cyst
To diagnose a Bartholin's cyst, your doctor may:
- Ask questions about your medical history
- Perform a pelvic exam
- Take a sample of secretions from your vagina or cervix to test for a sexually transmitted infection
- Recommend a test of the mass (biopsy) to check for cancerous cells if you're postmenopausal or over 40
If cancer is a concern, your doctor may refer you to a gynecologist who specializes in cancers of the female reproductive system.