Bartholin's Gland Cysts & Abscesses
Bartholin's glands are a pair of small glands that are just next to the lower part of the entrance to the vagina. Each gland is about the size of a pea. Unless swollen or infected, you cannot normally see or feel these glands. They are within the soft tissues (labia) next to the entrance to the vagina.
Each gland makes a small amount of mucus-like fluid. The fluid from each gland drains down a short tube called the Bartholin's gland duct. Each duct is about 2cm long and comes out towards the lower part of the entrance to the vagina. The fluid helps to keep the entrance to the vagina moist.
If the tube (duct) that drains the fluid becomes blocked then a fluid-filled swelling (cyst) develops. The size of a cyst can vary from small and pea-like to the size of a golf ball, or even bigger in some cases. The cyst may remain the same size or may slowly become bigger. The cause as to why the duct can become blocked is not clear.
An abscess is a collection of pus that can occur with an infection. An abscess can occur in any part of the body and sometimes occurs in a Bartholin's gland. Sometimes an abscess develops from a Bartholin's cyst that becomes infected. Sometimes the gland itself becomes infected and forms into an abscess. Within a few days, the abscess can become the size of a hen's egg, sometimes larger, and is usually very painful.
Many types of bacteria can infect a Bartholin's cyst or gland to cause an abscess. Most are the common germs that cause skin or urine infections (link to urine tract infections), such as Staphylococcus and Escherichia coli, which ultimately means that any woman can develop a Bartholin's abscess.
How Common are a Bartholin's Cysts or Abscesses?
About 3 in 100 women will develop a Bartholin's cyst or a Bartholin's abscess at some point in their lives with most cases occurring 'out of the blue' in women aged between 20 and 30.
What are the Signs & Symptoms of a Bartholin's Cyst or Abscess?
A Bartholin's cyst or abscess typically only develops on one of the two glands. If a cyst remains small and does not become infected then you may have no symptoms. You may just feel a small lump to one side at the lower end of the entrance to the vagina, which may cause no problems. However, a larger cyst may cause some discomfort - in particular, when walking, sitting, or having sex. Very large cysts can become quite painful.
With an abscess, a lump develops and quickly becomes bigger, typically over a few hours or days. It is likely to become very painful. You may feel unwell and have a high temperature; the skin over the abscess tends to become red, hot and very tender. The tender swelling makes it painful to sit down, to walk or to have sex.
Some women may also have some vaginal discharge also.