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The elusive vulva

Author(s): Brooke M. Faught, MSN, WHNP-BC, IF

This article reviews some of the more common vulvar dermatoses that healthcare providers may encounter in their practice. Many of these conditions warrant vulvoscopy and, in some cases, biopsy, in order to facilitate proper diagnosis and treatment.

In June 2016, the third annual Women’s Sexual Health Course for NPs, sponsored by NPWH and the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH), offered the firstever dedicated vulvoscopy training course for healthcare providers (HCPs). And for good reason. It is impossible to properly care for women presenting with vulvar dermatologic conditions without some form of advanced magnification and a biopsy skill set. Many anomalies can affect vulvar tissue. Without use of the vulvoscope, identifying characteristics of various dermatoses can be missed, thereby delaying treatment.

The vulva is often an overlooked area of assessment during routine pelvic examinations. When time is limited and the ultimate goal of an exam is the collection of cells from the depths of the vaginal canal, it is easy to understand why many HCPs bypass the scenic route and dash directly to the final destination. In doing so, however, pertinent details of a women’s vulvovaginal health may be missed and potentially serious conditions may go undiagnosed and untreated. As detailed in this article, some vulvar dermatologic conditions are benign and fairly simple to treat. However, other conditions are more serious, necessitating long-term treatment and/or surgical intervention. Although vulvar carcinoma and similar neoplasia are outside the scope of this article, proper evaluation, including biopsy when warranted, will identify or exclude such concerning diagnoses.

Contact dermatitis and lichen simplex chronicus

One of the most common vulvar skin disorders is contact dermatitis, which includes both irritant contact dermatitis and the more severe presentation, allergic contact dermatitis. Fifty-four percent of cases referred to one dermatologic practice for chronic vulvovaginitis resulted in a diagnosis of contact dermatitis.The well-demarcated outline of inflammation consistent with the shape of pads and pantiliners is a common sight in women who consistently wear such products. This reaction occurs in response to the chlorine and bleach used in the manufacturing of feminine hygiene goods. In such circumstances, many women turn to over-the-counter anti-itch creams that can actually exacerbate symptoms because of the preservatives and other constituents within product bases. Some of the more common exogenous vulvar irritants include benzocaine, glycerin, parabens, alcohol, latex, and adhesives.

Readers might be surprised to learn that in the early and mid-1900s, Lysol® was commonly marketed for use as a contraceptive and vaginal health douche. Even today, some women continue such practices, thinking they are maintaining proper personal hygiene. As such, HCPs need to ask patients about their vulvovaginal hygiene practices.

If contact dermatitis is strongly suspected based on a generalized pattern of inflammation consistent with a known vulvar irritant, vulvoscopy and biopsy are not necessarily warranted. In this case, avoidance of the irritant is the primary treatment. Additional options include oral antihistamines, sitz baths with Epsom salts, and local application of coconut oil and/or vegetable shortening. If symptoms persist despite these efforts, further investigation is appropriate.

Whereas contact dermatitis develops from an exogenous source, atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema, is triggered by an endogenous culprit.Atopic dermatitis, which is commonly associated with a genetic predisposition, is manifested by erythema, edema, and fissuring and is typically generalized and in a symmetric pattern.

When any of these aforementioned conditions result in a perpetual itch–scratch cycle, lichen simplex chronicus (LSC), also known as neurodermatitis, often becomes the primary diagnosis for the vulvar dermatosis. Instead of the generalized erythema and edema that occurs with contact and atopic dermatitis, LSC results in lichenification and excoriations of vulvar tissue because of persistent rubbing and scratching. In this case, breaking the itch–scratch cycle is of utmost importance. Sedatives, including high-potency antihistamines, can prove beneficial, particularly because many women do not realize that they are rubbing and scratching themselves at night during sleep. Some women find comfort in using direct application of ice to distract them from the sensation of itching. In severe cases, use of topical corticosteroids is warranted. However, HCPs must be aware that use of steroids masks presentation of pathology on biopsy. Also, HCPs must be alert to the potential for secondary infection with any inflammatory vulvar skin disorder. Vaginal cultures and PCR swabs are considered when appropriate.

Lichen sclerosus and lichen planus

Although the terms lichen sclerosus and lichen planus resemble one another, they are quite different pathologic processes. Lichen sclerosus (LS) presents as chronic and severe vulvovaginal and perianal itching. Changes to the tissue lead to vulvar scarring and significant loss of vulvar architecture, resulting in dysuria, dyspareunia, and dyschezia. Prevalence of LS has been reported at 1.7% of patients presenting to a gynecology practice.Of note, patients with LS have an increased incidence of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC).4 Findings occur in a figure 8 pattern to the vulvar and perianal tissue.

Women with lichen planus (LP) typically present with severe vulvar burning and rawness and, like those with LS, report dyspareunia. In many cases, LP appears throughout the vaginal canal, as well as on external vulvar structures. In addition, LP affects other mucous membranes, including the oral mucosa. Erosive LP (ELP), a more severe form of the disease, can result in severe scarring and stenosis of the vaginal canal. LP constitutes about 1% of new dermatology referrals.5

Unlike LS, LP does not appear to be associated with an increased incidence of SCC, although LP can coexist with LS. Vulvoscopy and biopsy are essential to properly diagnose and treat both conditions. When ELP is suspect, biopsy of both the erosive and lichenified tissue can aid the dermatologist in a proper diagnosis. In addition, collaboration with a dermato-pathologist familiar with vulvar dermatoses is strongly advised. Preferred treatment for both LS and LP entails high-potency topical steroids.

Seborrheic dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis (SD) is a common inflammatory disease of the skin characterized by scaly lesions that usually appear on sebacious gland-rich areas. Upwards of 5% of adults are afflicted with SD, which most commonly affects the scalp, eyebrows, nose, ears, groin, buttocks, skin folds, navel, and vulva.Vulvar presentation of SD can be particularly bothersome because of the sensitive nature of its location. Symptoms include itching and burning that coincides with splotchy erythema, oily skin, and white/yellow scales. If symptoms and examination findings are consistent with SD and the patient already has an established diagnosis of SD from a systemic presentation, vulvar biopsy is not always warranted. Topical corticosteroids and ketoconazole are often used to treat vulvar SD.


Vulvar psoriasis is another condition that can be presumed based on systemic presentation. One percent to 3% of the general population have the chronic, relapsing symptoms associated with psoriasis,with the most common complaint being pruritus. The red, silvery/scaly, well-demarcated plaques of psoriasis often affect the mons pubis, groin folds, inner thighs, and buttocks in a symmetric pattern. Inverse psoriasis, otherwise known as intertriginous psoriasis, is the most common form of psoriasis in the genital region.If the diagnosis is not clear, biopsy of the outer border of a suspected psoriatic lesion is recommended. Once again, mid- to high-potency topical steroids are preferred for vulvar psoriasis. Dapsone is occasionally used for cases of inverse psoriasis refractory to topical steroids.8

Genitourinary syndrome of menopause

Women who have reached menopause, either naturally or surgically, are likely to experience genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM). This syndrome is characterized by changes in the vulvovaginal tissue that can cause burning, dryness, irritation, dyspareunia, and vaginal discharge. (Of note, women who are in a prolonged hypoestrogenic state as a result of long-term use of oral contraceptives or breastfeeding can experience vulvovaginal tissue changes and symptoms similar to those of women with GSM.) Many women with GSM also experience urinary urgency/frequency, recurrent urinary tract infections, and dysuria. In 2014, precisely because of the urinary symptoms that frequently accompany vulvovaginal symptoms in menopausal women, The North American Menopause Society and ISSWSH endorsed a name chance from vulvovaginal atrophy to genitourinary syndrome of menopause for this symptom complex.9

On examination, many women with GSM present with tissue thinning, pallor, erythema, petechiae, vaginal stenosis, generalized mucosal dryness, loss of vulvovaginal architecture, clitoral phimosis, and urethral caruncle. In addition, vaginal pH rises above the normal acidic range of 3.5-4.5 and wet prep reveals an increase in parabasal cells and white blood cells. Although vulvoscopy can prove helpful in identifying the severity of GSM, biopsy is not required to diagnose the condition when the clinical presentation supports this diagnosis.

Current FDA-approved treatments for GSM include local estrogen products (two cream options, a vaginal ring, and a vaginal tablet) and an oral selective estrogen receptor modulator with tissue-selective effects on the vulvovaginal tissue. If symptoms persist or specific lesions remain refractory to treatment, then biopsy is warranted.


Vulvar dermatoses and dermatitis can be elusive and difficult to diagnose. Although many women present with debilitating symptoms, others remain unaware of concerning changes to their vulvar tissue. HCPs should not hesitate to incorporate the vulvoscope into the evaluation of any woman presenting with vulvovaginal symptoms. And, most important, when doubt exists, a biopsy should be performed to discover the presence, cause, or extent of the condition.

Brooke M. Faught is a nurse practitioner and the Clinical Director of the Women’s Institute for Sexual Health (WISH), A Division of Urology Associates, in Nashville, Tennessee. The author states that she serves as a speaker and advisory board member for Shionogi, Valeant, and Actavis and as an advisory board member for the Female Health Company.


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2. Farage MA, Miller KW, Ledger WJ. Determining the cause of vulvovaginal symptoms. Obstet Gynecol Surv. 2008;63(7):445-464.

3. Goldstein AT, Marinoff SC, Christopher K, Sroden M. Prevalence of vulvar lichen sclerosus in a general gynecology practice. J Reprod Med. 2005;50(7):477-480.

4. Powell JJ, Wojnarowska F. Lichen sclerosus. Lancet. 1999;353(9166):1777-1783.

5. Lewis FM, Bogliatto F. Erosive vulval lichen planus—a diagnosis not to be missed: a clinical review. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2013;171(2):214-219.

6. Fritsch PO, Reider N. Other eczematous dermatoses. In: Bolognia JL, Jorizzo JL, Rapini RP, eds. Dermatology. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Mosby; 2003:215-218.

7. Kurd SK, Gelfand JM. The prevalence of previously diagnosed and undiagnosed psoriasis in US adults: results from NHANES 2003-2004. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2009;60(2):218-224.

8. Guglielmetti A, Conlledo R, Bedoya J, et al. Inverse psoriasis involving genital skin folds: successful therapy with dapsone. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2012;2(1):15.

9. Portman DJ, Gass ML; Vulvovaginal Atrophy Terminology Consensus Conference Panel. Genitourinary syndrome of menopause: new terminology for vulvovaginal atrophy from the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health and The North American Menopause Society. Menopause. 2014;21(10):1063-1068.

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