Bartholin Gland Cyst
What are the Bartholin glands?
The Bartholin glands are in a woman's genital area. They are two pea-sized organs under the skin. They are on either side of the folds of skin (labia) that surround the vagina and urethra. Normally, you cannot feel or see the Bartholin glands.
The Bartholin glands make a small amount of fluid that moistens the outer genital area, or vulva. This fluid comes out of two tiny tubes next to the opening of the vagina. These tubes are called Bartholin ducts.
What are Bartholin gland cysts?
If a Bartholin duct gets blocked, fluid builds up in the gland. The blocked gland is called a Bartholin gland cyst. (Sometimes it is called a Bartholin duct cyst.) These cysts can range in size from a pea to a large marble. They usually grow slowly. If the Bartholin gland or duct gets infected, it is called a Bartholin gland abscess.
Bartholin gland cysts are often small and painless. Some go away without treatment. But if you have symptoms, you might want treatment. If the cyst is infected, you will need treatment.
What are the symptoms of a Bartholin gland cyst or abscess?
If a Bartholin gland cyst is not infected, you will likely feel a painless lump in the vulva area. You may have some redness or swelling. The size of a cyst can be about 0.25 in. (0.6 cm) to 1 in. (2.5 cm). You may find the cyst on your own, or your doctor may notice it during a physical exam.
If a cyst gets infected, it will probably hurt a lot. An infected cyst forms an abscess. A gland is probably infected if you are in extreme pain and have trouble even walking or sitting. This abscess can get bigger over 2 to 4 days.
What causes a Bartholin gland cyst?
A Bartholin gland duct can get blocked by infection, swelling, or thick mucus.1 When a duct gets blocked, fluid builds up and creates a cyst. The cyst can get bigger after sex because the glands make more fluid during sex.1
Can you prevent Bartholin gland cysts?
You cannot prevent Bartholin gland cysts.
Infected Bartholin cysts are sometimes caused by sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). You can lower your risk of infection by using a condom when you have sex.
How are they treated?
In some cases, you may not need to treat a Bartholin gland cyst. Some cysts go away without treatment. But if you have symptoms, you might want treatment. If the cyst is infected and painful, you will need treatment. Your gynecologist or family doctor can treat a Bartholin gland cyst.
If the cyst is infected, it may break open and start to heal on its own after 3 to 4 days. Call your doctor if you have a lot of pain or a fever.
At home, you can take a nonprescription pain medicine such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) to relieve pain. To help healing, soak the area in a shallow, warm bath, or sitz bath. Do not have sex while a Bartholin cyst is healing.
If a Bartholin gland abscess comes back several times, your doctor may surgically remove the gland and duct.
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about Bartholin gland cyst:
A small Bartholin gland cyst most often has no symptoms. But a large cyst or infection can cause symptoms.
Bartholin gland cyst that is not infected
Symptoms may include:
- A painless lump in the vulva area. It is possible, though unlikely, for both glands to develop cysts at the same time.
- Redness or swelling in the vulva area. A Bartholin gland cyst can swell from about 0.25 in. (0.6 cm) to 1 in. (2.5 cm).
- Discomfort when walking, sitting, or having sex.
You may find a Bartholin cyst on your own, or your doctor may notice it during a physical exam.
Infected Bartholin gland cyst (abscess)
Symptoms may include:
- Increasing pain that limits activities or occurs with walking, sitting, physical activity, or sex.
- Fever and chills.
- Swelling in the vulva area over a 2- to 4-day period.
- Drainage from the cyst. Drainage may occur 4 to 5 days after the swelling starts.
To prevent complications, an abscess that opens (ruptures) on its own should be checked by a doctor.
Exams and Tests
Unless a Bartholin gland cyst is causing symptoms, you may not know you have one. You or your doctor are most likely to notice one if it is big enough to be uncomfortable, creates a lump you can see or feel under the skin, or is infected.
If you are older than 40, your doctor may more carefully examine a lump to make sure that it is not cancerous. Although cancer is rare, a woman's risk increases with age.
A Bartholin gland abscess is diagnosed based on signs of infection, such as fever or swelling, and pain in the Bartholin gland area. Your doctor may culture some of the fluid drained from the abscess. Culture results show what type of bacteria are causing the infection. Knowing this helps your doctor choose an antibiotic for you. More than 60 different types of bacteria have been found in Bartholin gland abscesses, including gonorrhea and chlamydia.
Most Bartholin gland cysts don't need treatment, or they go away on their own. But if you have a cyst that is causing bothersome symptoms or that may be infected, see your doctor for treatment. Your treatment options will depend on how severe your symptoms are.
Treatment for a Bartholin gland cyst that is not infected
When a Bartholin gland cyst appears, but there are no symptoms or mild symptoms, treatment includes:
- Watchful waiting . Symptoms are watched without using medical treatment. Some Bartholin cysts never get worse.
- Soaking the genital area in a warm, shallow bath (sitz bath). This can reduce discomfort and helps the genital area to heal.
- Nonprescription pain medicine, such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) to relieve discomfort.
A Bartholin gland cyst can be present for months or years without causing any symptoms.
If sexual intercourse causes symptoms, talk to your doctor.
Treatment for a ruptured Bartholin abscess
An infected Bartholin gland cyst (abscess) that has burst open (ruptured) sometimes will heal on its own. In this case, your doctor may suggest sitz baths, nonprescription pain relievers, and watchful waiting. You may not need to take antibiotics after the cyst has ruptured.
Treatment for a Bartholin gland cyst that causes symptoms
A Bartholin cyst that is large, painful, or infected will be drained. If you have an abscess, you may take antibiotics after the procedure.
Simply draining a cyst and letting it heal shut will likely allow it to fill up again. To keep the cyst from closing and filling up again, it is usually held open for a few weeks with:
- A Word catheter, which is a small drainage tube with a small balloon on one end. The balloon is inflated inside the cyst to keep the tube in place. After the gland has healed and the tube and balloon are removed, the opening remains. This is the most common way to treat a large or infected Bartholin gland cyst.
- A small piece of gauze which keeps the cyst from closing.
- Stitches, which prevent the cyst wall from reforming a closed sac. Bartholin gland cysts only come back in about 5 to 10 out of 100 women after this procedure.2
Less commonly, the cyst wall is damaged with a carbon dioxide laser or silver nitrate to prevent it from growing back.
For severe Bartholin cysts and abscesses that do not get better with repeated treatment, the entire Bartholin gland and duct can be removed. This is a surgery, also known as excision. Because excision is an involved procedure that can lead to blood loss and complications, it is done in a surgery center. Excision is only used when other treatments have repeatedly failed.
What to think about
To reduce the risk of infection after treatment, do not have sexual intercourse until the area is completely healed. This can take several weeks, depending on the treatment method that was used.
Excision is sometimes recommended for postmenopausal women who have Bartholin gland cysts or abscesses. This is because of general concerns about the risk of cancer in the pelvic area, which increases with age. But simply draining a Bartholin cyst and testing the cyst tissue for cancer is also a reasonable first-time treatment for older women.
Treatment during pregnancy
If you are pregnant and have a Bartholin gland cyst, your treatment will depend on how severe your symptoms are and whether you have an infection.
- When possible, draining a cyst is delayed until after your baby is born. This is because the genital area has increased blood flow during pregnancy, so bleeding is more likely. A large cyst, though, may need to be drained to prevent problems during delivery.
- Because having an infection can cause you to go into labor before your due date, an abscess is drained and treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics and local anesthesia are considered safe during pregnancy.
- No symptoms.
- Mild symptoms.
- Opened and drained on its own. (See your doctor to make sure that other treatment is not needed.)
Call your doctor if your symptoms become worse or do not improve as expected. If you have signs of infection, such as fever, chills, pain, redness, or sudden swelling, see your doctor for treatment.
Other Places To Get Help
|American Academy of Family Physicians|
|P.O. Box 11210|
|Shawnee Mission, KS 66207-1210|
The American Academy of Family Physicians produces a variety of health-related educational materials. Its Web site offers a health library and bulletin board, news, and comments sections.
- Eilber KS, Raz S (2003). Benign cystic lesions of the vagina: A literature review. Journal of Urology, 170(3): 717–722.
- Eckert LO, Lentz GM (2007). Infections of Bartholin's glands section of Infections of the lower genital tract. In VL Katz et al., eds., Comprehensive Gynecology, 5th ed., pp. 571–573. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier.
Other Works Consulted
- Mazdisnian F (2007). Bartholin's duct cyst and abscess section of Benign disorder of the vulva and vagina. In AH DeCherney et al., eds., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 10th ed., pp. 618–619. New York: McGraw-Hill.
|Author||Sandy Jocoy, RN|
|Editor||Kathleen M. Ariss, MS|
|Associate Editor||Pat Truman, MATC|
|Primary Medical Reviewer||Joy Melnikow, MD, MPH - Family Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Deborah A. Penava, BA, MD, FRCSC, MPH - Obstetrics and Gynecology|
|Last Updated||February 4, 2009|
Last Updated: February 4, 2009