Clinical Review

Chronic vulvar irritation, itching, and pain. What is the diagnosis?

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Five cases of dermatoses, vaginal abnormalities, and pain syndromes that may masquerade as infection



Chronic irritation, itching, and pain are only rarely due to infection. These symptoms are more likely to be caused by dermatoses, vaginal abnormalities, and pain syndromes that may be difficult to diagnose. Careful evaluation should include a wet mount and culture to eliminate infection as a cause so that the correct diagnosis can be ascertained and treated.

In Part 2 of this two-part series, we focus on five cases of vulvar dermatologic disruptions:

  • atrophic vagina
  • irritant and allergic contact dermatitis
  • complex vulvar aphthosis
  • desquamative inflammatory vaginitis
  • inverse psoriasis.

A 56-year-old woman visits your office for management of recent-onset introital burning during sexual activity. She reports that her commercial lubricant causes irritation. Topical and oral antifungal therapies have not been beneficial. She has a strong family history of breast cancer.

On examination, she exhibits small, smooth labia minora and experiences pain when a cotton swab is pressed against the vestibule. The vagina is also smooth, with scant secretions. Microscopically, these secretions are almost acellular, with no increase in white blood cells and no clue cells, yeast forms, or lactobacilli. The pH is greater than 6.5, and most epithelial cells are parabasal ( FIGURE 1 ).

You prescribe topical estradiol cream for vaginal use three nights per week, but when the patient returns 1 month later, her condition is unchanged. She explains that she never used the cream after reading the package insert, which reports a risk of breast cancer.

Diagnosis: Atrophic vagina (not atrophic vaginitis, as there is no increase in white blood cells).

Treatment: Re-estrogenization should relieve her symptoms.

Several options for local estrogen replacement are available. Creams include estradiol (Estrace) and conjugated equine estrogen (Premarin), the latter of which is arguably slightly more irritating. These are prescribed at a starting dose of 1 g in the vagina three nights per week. After several weeks, they can be titrated to the lowest frequency that controls symptoms.

The risk of vaginal candidiasis is fairly high during the first 2 or 3 weeks of re-estrogenization, so patients should be warned of this possibility. Also consider prophylactic weekly fluconazole or an azole suppository two or three times a week for the first few weeks. Estradiol tablets (Vagifem) inserted in the vagina are effective, less messy, and more expensive, as is the estradiol ring (Estring), which is inserted and changed quarterly.

It is not unusual for a woman to avoid use of topical estrogen out of fear, or to use insufficient amounts only on the vulva, or to use it for only 1 or 2 weeks. 1

Women should be scheduled for a return visit to ensure they have been using the estrogen, their wet mount has normalized, and discomfort has cleared.

Related article: Your menopausal patient's breast biopsy reveals atypical hyperplasia. JoAnn V. Pinkerton, MD (Cases in Menopause; May 2013)

When a woman is reluctant to use local estrogen
We counsel women that small doses of vaginal estrogen used for limited periods of time are unlikely to influence their breast cancer risk and are the most effective treatment for symptoms of atrophy. Usually, this explanation is sufficient to reassure a woman that topical estrogen is safe. Otherwise, use of commercial personal lubricants (silicone-based lubricants are well tolerated) and moisturizers such as Replens and RePhresh can be comforting.


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