Today in awkward health things you may have Googled but are afraid to talk about: bumps on your labia (the part of the vulva known as the “lips”) and general genital region near your vagina. The various types of bumps often have different symptoms and appearances, but they typically all have one thing in common: the ability to send you into a panicked Google spiral that ends in you convinced you have a rare, untreatable cancer. Very unlikely, Alyssa Dweck, M.D., assistant clinical professor of obstetrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and co-author of V Is For Vagina, tells SELF. “Women come into my office worried about [genital bumps] all the time, and many jump to the initial, horrible conclusion that they have cancer,” she explains. In reality, that’s the least likely cause. Here, Dweck explains the much more believable origins of a bump on your labia or other lady parts, and what you can do to treat it.
1. You have a Bartholin’s cyst.
This is one of the most common bump-related reasons women wind up in Dweck’s office. “If you look at the opening of the vagina like it’s a clock [with the clitoris being 12:00], at 5:00 and 7:00, there are Bartholin’s glands, which secrete mucus that help lubricate the vagina,” says Dweck. Sometimes these glands become blocked or infected, leading to bumps that can get pretty big (Dweck has seen golf ball-sized Bartholin’s cysts). What’s inside of them differs. Sometimes they leak a clear, mucus-like liquid, other times they weep pus, and in some instances they’re not filled with fluid at all, says Dweck. These cysts can be painful, but if it’s small and not infected, you may not even notice it. That said, if the cyst gets bigger, you might feel it alongside the opening of your vagina (it’ll usually only be on one side), according to the Mayo Clinic. The good news is that these cysts sometimes go away on their own if you treat them with warm water for a few days (try taking a sitz bath).. But if the cyst becomes tender and painful, you’re having trouble sitting or walking correctly, you’re experiencing pain during sex, or you have a fever, make an appointment with your gynecologist. They can drain it for you or prescribe antibiotics.
2. You have bumps because of your hair removal method.
“Shaving, waxing, and whatnot can cause an infection in some of the small hair follicles around the vulva, which can create bumps and lumps,” says Dweck. These infections can make themselves known with anything from rash-like razor burn to a boil full of pus. These grooming-inflicted bumps usually go away on their own, as long as you take a break from shaving or waxing for a week or two. To lessen the likelihood of hair removal-induced irritation, Dweck recommends swapping out your razors frequently, shaving in the direction of your pubic hair, and using something like shaving cream to elevate the hair off the skin and reduce the chance of nicks. You can also try changing your method, either from shaving to waxing or vice versa. And if you’re still prone to getting these bumps, you can apply an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin after shaving to ward off infection-causing bacteria.
3. You have a sebaceous cyst.
Hurrah for another bump that’s actually quite harmless. “[Sebaceous cysts] are benign, usually superficial lumps that can occur anywhere on the vulva and often show up as a bump on the labia,” says Dweck. “They typically have a white hue, can be solitary or multiple, and often go away on their own.” They also don’t usually hurt, which is why most women find them while doing something like showering instead of investigating the source of random pain, says Dweck. If it’s been a few weeks and the bump hasn’t subsided, feel free to check in with a doctor about it.
4. You have genital warts.
Human papilloma virus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted infection, can cause genital warts, which often manifest in a telltale way. “[They] have the appearance of a little piece of cauliflower, and many times you’ll have more than one,” says Dweck. But warts don’t always look like that—sometimes they’re flat instead of raised, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (You can have a strain of HPV that causes genital warts without any bumps showing up—you can also pass genital warts to a partner even if you don’t see any on yourself, according to Planned Parenthood.) You can get genital warts through skin-to-skin contact (think vaginal, anal, or oral sex) with someone who has them, and they’re actually pretty common—around 360,000 people get infected with them each year, according to Planned Parenthood. Although genital warts can go away on their own, seeing a doctor can get rid of them faster. “There are lots of treatments for warts. We can surgically remove them, use creams, and laser them,” says Dweck.
5. You have genital herpes.
There’s a lot of stigma around this diagnosis, but herpes is not the end of your life—sexual or otherwise. In fact, genital herpes is pretty common in the U.S. More than one out of every six people aged 14 to 49 years old have it, according to the CDC. Tons of people don’t know they have genital herpes because it’s often asymptomatic. But when genital herpes does show up, it sometimes does so in the form of irritating bumps. “Herpes can cause blisters and little pustules, but what usually brings someone [with herpes into my office] is the pain,” says Dweck. The blisters often look like little pimples on a red base, and they can be extremely uncomfortable. There’s no cure for herpes but seeing a doctor can help you figure out a plan of action. They might prescribe a medication that can prevent or shorten outbreaks and reduce the risk of you passing it on to your partner.
6. You have syphilis.
Someone once told me that “no one gets syphilis anymore,” which…no. Syphilis rates are actually on the rise—rates increased by 15 percent between 2013 and 2015, according to 2015 data from the CDC, and sometimes this sexually transmitted infection presents as a painless chancre, or round, open sore on your genitals. “During a primary syphilis outbreak, it’s usually just one sore that’s about the size of a dime or smaller,” says Dweck. Since condoms don’t always protect against syphilis, it’s key to get tested regularly. The good news is syphilis can usually be cured with medication, as long as it’s treated early. If not, it can lead to serious problems like brain damage, paralysis, and blindness, according to Planned Parenthood. So get tested early and often.
7. You have molluscum contagiosum.
Yes, there’s an STI out there that sounds like a Harry Potter spell. Even though you may have never heard of molluscum, you might have gotten this little-known sexually transmitted infection without realizing it. Although doctors sometimes see it in children, it can also be passed along by adults through sexual contact. “If you have molluscum, multiple little red bumps with a crater in the middle may appear [on the vulva],” says Dweck. They can be super tiny or as large as the bottom of a pencil eraser, and they usually show up in adults whose immune systems are weak, according to the Mayo Clinic. Though the bumps usually disappear within a year without treatment, see your doctor to get rid of them sooner. They’ll likely prescribe medications or laser therapy.
8. You (might, but probably don’t) have cancer.
This is the last option on the list because it’s the least likely, and because you absolutely should not jump to this conclusion if you find a lump on your nether regions. “Vaginal cancer is very rare. Vulvar cancer is not as rare, but still uncommon and typically a disease of older women,” says Dweck. Both vaginal and vulvar cancers don’t necessarily show symptoms. If they do, a bump is only one of the potential signs—others include painful urination, bleeding, itching, and burning, according to the Mayo Clinic and American Cancer Society. Those are all reasons you’d want to see the ob/gyn anyway, as they can be symptoms of various infections.
Doctors have also found the skin cancer melanoma on the vulva, says Dweck. In that case, the signs can be the same as melanoma on any other part of the body: a skin lesion that may or may not be raised, may or may not bleed, might have an irregular border, and might look different from other moles.
No matter what you’re thinking a bump or your labia or elsewhere may be, if you’re really worried, go see a doctor. Don’t convince yourself it’s probably harmless if you’re truly freaking out. If it is something that needs treatment, a doctor can walk you through your options. And as Dweck (and many other ob/gyns) have told me, even if it’s NBD, doctors are more than happy to check you out and put your mind at ease.