Bartholin Cysts – A Troublesome Vaginal Condition

A cyst is a closed sac-like structure, an abnormal pocket of fluid similar to a blister, that contains either liquid, gaseous, or semi-solid substances. A cyst is located within a tissue, and can occur anywhere in the body and can vary in size; some are so small they can only be viewed through a microscope, while others may become so big that they displace normal organs.

A cyst is not a normal part of the tissue where it is located. It has a distinct membrane and division on nearby tissue – the outer or capsular portion of a cyst is called the cyst wall. If the sac is filled with pus it is not a cyst, it is an abscess (acute Bartholin’s gland cysts are actually abscesses). The English word cyst comes from the Latin word cystis, which came from the Ancient Greek word kystis, meaning “bladder” or “pouch”.

Cysts can be caused by:

  • Tumours
  • Genetic conditions
  • Infections
  • A fault in an organ of a developing embryo
  • A defect in the cells
  • Chronic inflammatory conditions
  • A parasite
  • Impact injury that breaks a vessel
  • Blockages of ducts in the body which cause a fluid build-up (Bartholin cyst cause)

So what is a Bartholin Cyst?

The Bartholin abscess was discovered and named by Caspar Bartholin, a Danish physician and anatomist whom lived between 1655 and 1738.

The Bartholin’s glands are located at the entrance to a woman’s vagina, one on each side. They are small and cannot be seen or felt when they are functioning normally. Their function is to secrete fluid onto the inner surface of the vaginal labia to assist with lubricating the external genitalia and vaginal orifice.

Bartholin’s glands secrete relatively minute amounts (one or two drops) of fluid when a woman is sexually aroused. The minute droplets of fluid were once believed to be important for lubricating the vagina, but research has demonstrated that vaginal lubrication comes from deeper within the vagina. The fluid may slightly moisten the labial opening of the vagina, serving to make contact with this sensitive area more comfortable for the woman.

Problems with the Bartholin’s glands include cysts, which are relatively painless enlargements of the gland, and abscesses, which are infections of the gland. Typically only one of the two glands is affected, although both may become affected over a woman’s lifetime. A Bartholin cyst develops when the duct exiting the Bartholin’s gland becomes blocked. The fluid produced by the gland then accumulates, causing the gland to swell and form a cyst. An abscess occurs when a cyst becomes infected and can cause excruciating pain for the sufferer, sometimes making it difficult to sit or walk.

Bartholin abscesses can be caused by any of a number of bacteria. These include bacterial organisms that cause sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea, as well as bacteria normally found in the intestinal tract, such as Escherichia coli. It is common for these abscesses to involve more than one type of organism. It is important to understand that bacterial infection is the most prominent cause of Bartholin cysts, and as such, good general health and hygiene is a vital component in the prevention of Bartholin cysts.

Any condition that causes immune system compromise such as high stress, general systemic infections, glandular fever, HIV/AIDS, etc, will make a woman more prone to bacterial infections throughout her body, including the vagina. Bartholin Cysts are diagnosed by visual patient history, visual inspection and palpation. There are very easy to diagnose as they appear as enlarged ‘lumps’ just inside the labia on one side or the other.

How are Bartholin Cysts Treated?

Bartholin cysts if uninfected are usually left alone as they do not really pose any issues to comfort or health. However, it is advised that women with asymptomatic Bartholin cysts pay close and regular attention to any changes in size, shape, tenderness, or temperature as these changes may indicate infection. Infected Bartholin cysts (also known as abcesses) need to be treated quickly by a medical professional. Sometimes, if the infection is deemed low grade, antibiotics are prescribed and the woman is advised to supervise changes and take a sitz bath to assist in easing the pain, he swelling and the infection. More serious infections require surgical intervention, which may include lancing and draining the cyst under local anesthetic, to a Bartholin cysts marsupialisation which usually requires general anesthetic sedation and a procedure which sews an open hole in the cyst wall to allow the drainage of infected material and the proper functioning of the gland once the tissue has healed. Due to the vascularisation of the genital tissue, there can be a lot of blood with this procedure, however the woman will feel relief almost instantaneously and will be able to return to normal functioning within a week or two, once the surgical wounds have healed.

Are there any Natural Remedies for a Bartholin Cyst?

When a cyst in acutely infected, the interventions are quite limited, either antibiotics or surgery. However, for those women who are conscious about their health and want to investigate natural options in the management of Bartholin cysts, there are a number of natural remedies that are incredibly worthwhile.

1) Prevention is key! Stopping an infection occurring in the first place is obviously the absolute best option for Bartholin cysts. This means keeping your body health through correct nutrition and exercise, and losing any additional weight (it has been shown that Bartholin cyst infection may be a precursor to diabetes type 2). Be aware of your hygiene and having an excellent ‘vagina wellness plan’ will ensure that you minimise your risks of developing an infection. Reducing your stress is also vital. Stress decreases our bodies ability to fight infections due to the impact stress has on our immune systems. By reducing your stress levels and using supplementation, nutrition, and complementary medicine interventions such as meditation and mindfulness, herbal therapeutics, tai chi, yoga, massage, etc, you really assist your body in fighting off any infection before it invades your gentle lady pieces.

2) A standard sitz bath with Epsom salts, or standard sea salt has been shown to reduce the swelling and potential infections within the Bartholin’s gland. If you do suffer from Bartholin cysts that are asymptomatic, doing a sitz salt bath once or twice a week should really assist in reducing a possible and painful Bartholin cyst infection.

3) There are homeopathic, naturopathic, nutritional and aromatherapeutic interventions which have been shown to work very well with Bartholin cyst issues. Everything from the food you eat, the herbal remedies you can take, the underwear you put on, the way you wipe when you go to the toilet, and essential oils blends that you can dab on the cyst, can make a big difference in symptoms and recurrences.

Bartholin cysts are not fatal, however when infected and not managed correctly can be incredibly painful, debilitating, and may have further impacts on self-esteem, sexual health, etc. Bartholin cysts are nothing to be embarrassed of, and just as any other part of our body can become dysfunctional and/or infected when we are not at our optimal health, so too can these liitle glands of the vagina. As women, we should all be aware of our Bartholin’s glands and aim to keep them in the best health we possibly can.