There’s no question that vaginal pain sucks—it makes your life more complicated than it has to be (think: having sex, going to the bathroom) and instantly sends you into a panic spiral, wondering, Why does my vagina hurt?
In my opinion the potential reason behind your discomfort runs the gamut, from something as simple as a yeast infection or STI to endometriosis. The first step to finding out exactly what is bothering you is to pinpoint where that pain is coming from. “Some women describe the area down below as their vagina,” explains Dr. Mamta Pattnayak, a senior Obstetrician and Gynecologist in Gurgaon (FMRI). In reality, you could be feeling it in your vulva, uterus, or pelvic or abdominal region. Depending on the location, you could be experiencing a different condition.
But what if you’re not sure where your discomfort is coming from? “Keep a pain journal, so you can better characterize the pain to your health care provider if symptoms persist,” says Dr. Mamta. “Your vagina should not hurt. There is always a reason.”
Of course, for any kind of vaginal pain, you should check in with your doc, especially if the pain is interfering with your daily activities. They can help you figure out what’s going on and prescribe the appropriate treatment.
If you want a better idea of what exactly you might be dealing with down there, check out this list of common causes of vaginal pain, according to the experts.
1. Yeast Infections
The most common symptoms of yeast infections are more on the itching and burning side of things, says Dr. Mamta. But they can also be painful (not to mention annoying as hell). “The yeast can impact the inside of the vagina, or directly outside of the vagina, which may cause swelling and redness,” says Dr. Mamta. You may also experience vaginal discharge. “It’s white and commonly described as having the appearance of cottage cheese,” Dr. Mamta explains.
How to treat it: While you can treat a yeast infection with OTC medications (and may choose to if you’ve experienced this type of infection before), it’s best to seek a doctor’s opinion if this is your first time dealing with the condition. Your ob-gyn will perform a pelvic exam and prescribe you an anti-fungal cream to use until your symptoms are gone.
2. Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)
Bacterial vaginosis can also cause itching and vaginal discomfort, but any discharge you might have will likely be more watery, and accompanied by a fishy odor. The condition is caused by an overgrowth of bacteria in the vagina.
“Normally, the vagina is populated with good bacteria that keep the pH of your vagina in balance,” Dr. Mamta. But when the good bacteria get outnumbered by “bad” bacteria, that’s when you have a case of BV. Docs aren’t sure exactly what triggers it, but sex and your period can throw off your vaginal pH.
How to treat it: If you have bacterial vaginosis, a quick round of antibiotics (usually either a pill or cream) from your doctor can squash it and get rid of any symptoms.
3. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
Herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea—generally any kind of sexually transmitted infection (STI) can cause pain down there, says Dr. Anil.
With herpes specifically—which affects about one in every six Indian, according to a report, by the way—it’s typically nerve- or inflammation-related, says an expert. “Herpes tends to have specific lesions you can see and are quite tender to the touch,” he adds.
Pain from other STIs typically comes from general inflammation. “They tend to create more swelling of the vaginal tissue, which tends to be sensitive to pain and discomfort, as well as burning and itching,” says Dr. Anil. Either way, you need a doc to check you out if you’re experiencing pain and inflammation of any kind in the vagina area, in order to get things under control.
How to treat it: Fortunately, according to the doctors one of the easiest to address on this list. “There is a clear way to treat via antibiotics, and there is a clear method of prevention—abstinence or condom usage”. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and other STIs can typically be cleared up with medication; and herpes, though not curable, can be managed to reduce future outbreaks and pain.
4. Vaginal Dryness
Vaginal dryness is all about the hormone estrogen—specifically a lack of it. (FYI: The issue doesn’t only come up for post-menopausal women, either.)
“At the end of the day, estrogen itself is a growth hormone that improves blood flow to the vagina, thickness of the vaginal wall, as well as the elasticity and lubrication of the vagina,” says Dr. Sasmita Das, Obs & Gyn at Bhubaneswar. And when there’s not enough estrogen coursing through your body—whether it’s from your birth control pills, breastfeeding, or, yes, menopause—it can make things pretty painful.
How to treat it: If you feel like your vagina doesn’t lubricate the way it used to, it might be time to check in with your doctor, says Dr. Sasmita. They’ll be able to treat you with something topical, or even change your contraception method, to make you a bit more comfortable.
5. Your Partner’s Penis
While you may be inclined to blame your own anatomy, you might want to look at your partner too. “Is it really pain in your vagina that you’re experiencing, or is it pain during penetration—something you feel inside your belly?” says Dr. Mamta. “It can be very hard to differentiate.”
Basically, that “belly pain” might actually be coming from a penis penetrating you uncomfortably (possibly because it is large for your anatomy). If sex is uncomfortable for you—and you suspect your partner’s size is to blame—try changing positions, specifically ones that don’t allow for super deep penetration, like the reverse cowgirl. And make sure to use lube…lots of lube.
It’s also important to consider the condoms you’re using. You could be allergic to latex, which could result in itching and vaginal pain.
How to treat it: Your family medicine doctor or gyno will be able to suss this one out via an exam and honest conversation with you. They may suggest switching up your condoms or trying a lubrication product.
6. Pelvic Floor Dysfunction
This is a condition where you can’t properly relax and coordinate the muscles in your pelvic floor to have a bowel movement, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It also causes pain during sex in women.
Pelvic floor dysfunction can be a result of traumatic injuries to the area, overusing those muscles, pelvic surgery, being overweight, and aging. Pregnant women are often affected because childbirth can strain the pelvic floor muscles, especially if labor took a long time or was difficult.
On top of pelvic pain, if you also feel the urge to use the bathroom often, are constipated, struggle to have a bowel movement, leak stool or urine, or have pain while peeing, see your doctor for advice.
How to treat it: Pelvic floor dysfunction is usually treated with physical therapy. Your doctor may also recommend medications and relaxation techniques.
Vulvodynia is chronic vaginal pain without an identifiable cause (so, not because of an infection or another medical condition), according to the Fellow of the International College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists (FICOG). “About nine percent of women will have this kind of pain in their lives,” says Dr. Sasmita, describing the discomfort as occurring during penetration or even when you’re inserting a tampon.
For some women, though, pangs of pain are spontaneous and unrelated to sex or touching the area in any way. “It’s mysterious in that it can come and go,” notes Dr. Sasmita.
Vulvodynia isn’t well understood, but doctors believe the pain comes from the extra nerve fibers in that outer part of the vagina and vulva. “It’s the most enervated part of the vagina,” says Dr. Mamta.
How to treat it: Doctors who diagnose vulvodynia will often treat it with topical medications such as lidocaine, which are also used for fibromyalgia, another chronic pain condition without a known cause.
Endometriosis is kind of a confusing condition—and pretty tricky for doctors to diagnose too. It is when uterine tissue grows in places outside of the uterus (like inside your pelvic region, your abdomen, or even other places, like your lungs). The disease affects 11 percent of Indian women of childbearing age and is more common in those in their 30s or 40s, according to a report.
The condition is also incredibly painful. “It creates chronic inflammation and scarring around tissues, which can cause pain,” says Dr. Mamta. The pain can manifest in several ways: very painful menstrual cramps, chronic pain in the lower back and pelvis, pain during or after sex, intestinal pain, and pain when you poop or pee.
Endometriosis also causes bleeding or spotting between periods, infertility, and GI issues, such as constipation, bloating, and diarrhea. If your vaginal pain is accompanied by these other symptoms, talk to your doctor ASAP.
How to treat it: Endometriosis is diagnosed through a pelvic exam and imaging tests, but laparoscopy, a kind of surgery that doctors use to look inside your pelvic area, is the only way to be sure that you have it. Treatment typically includes hormone therapy or surgery to remove any tissues that are causing pain.
9. Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
Pelvic inflammatory disease—an infection of your uterus, fallopian tubes, or ovaries—is another inflammatory condition that can cause vaginal pain. “It can result in scarring inside the pelvic organs, or it may cause [the pelvic organs] to attach to one another, causing chronic discomfort and pain,” says Dr. Anil.
FYI, PID is often a result of untreated STIs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, according to the CDC, but other kinds of infections can also cause this condition. You’re at higher risk of getting PID if you have more than one sexual partner, had PID before, douche, or just got an IUD in the past three weeks.
How to treat it: After a pelvic exam and ultrasound to determine whether you have this condition, your doctor will likely put you on a course of antibiotics to cleat the infection. And using a condom when you have sex can help reduce your chances of getting PID.
10. Vulvovaginal Atrophy
Vulvovaginal atrophy is thinning, drying, and inflammation of the vaginal walls that can happen when your body produces less estrogen, so most commonly after menopause (usually in women 50 or over). Women who just had a baby and those who are breastfeeding can also experience a dip in estrogen level, though. A decrease of this hormone leads to less vaginal fluid and lubrication, which is usually the first sign of this condition.
This condition can make sex and urination uncomfortable. Besides pain, it can also cause vaginal dryness, itching, and redness. You may also see a yellow discharge, have spotting or bleeding, and feel pressure on your vulvar and vaginal area.
How to treat it: After diagnosis from your ob-gyn, the condition is typically treated with lubricant and hormone therapy.
11. Cervical Cancer
A long-lasting infection with certain types of HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer. It’s estimated at least half of sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives, but few women will actually develop this type of cancer. The best way to prevent it is through regular screening and the HPV vaccine.
Pelvic pain (along with abnormal bleeding and brown discharge) is a symptom of cervical cancer. If you’re experiencing these symptoms and haven’t had a Pap smear in the past year, talk to your doc.
How to treat it: Depending on the kind and stage, cervical cancer is usually treated with surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation.
If you’ve gone to your health care clinician and they’ve determined that there’s nothing going on in the health department, you might also want to consider past life events that could have resulted in your pain.
“Did you reveal your history of child abuse, sexual assault, or trauma with vaginal birth?” Dr. Sasmita asks. All of these non-evident factors could result in vaginal pain, she explains.
How to treat it: If you have experienced sexual assault or surgeries that resulted in a traumatic healing experience, revealing this to your MD could help them recommend the proper treatment—whether that’s therapy, medication, or something else. It’s important for both docs and patients to remember that mental health is just as important a part of a wellness check as anything else.
Ultimately, you shouldn’t have to deal with vaginal pain or discomfort around your vulva and vagina—so bring up any concerns with a doctor.
Hey, talking about vaginal pain can be totally awkward (even though it shouldn’t be!). But speaking up to a health care provider is key to finding relief and to ruling out any underlying condition that requires treatment.
If you’ve already reported your symptoms and feel like they’ve been brushed off or misdiagnosed by a particular provider, know that this is not uncommon—especially for women. A big question to ask when it comes to disparities in health care is, “Does the patient feel agency to ask questions of their health care provider?” Dr. Mamta points out.
Do you feel like you could ask your MD, “what else could it be, doctor?” and they would respond with something other than a dismissal? If the answer to that question is no and you don’t feel like you’re being heard, know that you are allowed to and encouraged by these pros to find a second opinion.