If you have a lump in your genitals, get it checked by your GP.
If it turns out to be a Bartholin's cyst and it doesn't bother you, it's often better to leave it alone.
If the cyst is painful, your GP may recommend:
- soaking the cyst for 10 to 15 minutes in a few inches of warm water (it's easier in the bath) – it's best to do this several times a day for three or four days if possible
- holding a warm compress (a flannel or cotton wool warmed with hot water) against the area
- taking painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
Always read the manufacturer's instructions when using over-the-counter medication.
Treating an abscess
If the cyst becomes infected and an abscess (a painful collection of pus) develops, you may be prescribed antibiotics to clear the infection.
Once the infection has been treated, your GP may still recommend having the cyst drained, particularly if the abscess is large.
Draining cysts and abscesses
A number of techniques can be used to drain a Bartholin's cyst or abscess and reduce the likelihood of it returning. The main procedures are described below.
Balloon catheter insertion
Balloon catheter insertion, sometimes known as catheter placement or fistulisation, is a procedure used to drain the fluid from the abscess or cyst.
A permanent passage is created to drain away any fluid that builds up in the future. This is an outpatient procedure, which means you won't need to stay in hospital overnight.
It's usually carried out under local anaesthetic, where you remain conscious, but the area is numbed so you can't feel anything. It can also be carried out under general anaesthetic, where you're unconscious and unable to feel anything.
A cut is made in the abscess or cyst and the fluid is drained. A balloon catheter is then inserted into the empty abscess or cyst. A balloon catheter is a thin, plastic tube with a small, inflatable balloon on one end.
Once inside the abscess or cyst, the balloon is filled with a small amount of salt water. This increases the size of the balloon so it fills the abscess or cyst. Stitches may be used to partially close the opening and hold the balloon catheter in place.
The catheter will stay in place while new cells grow around it (epithelialisation). This means the surface of the wound heals, but a drainage passage is left in place.
Epithelialisation usually takes around four weeks, although it can take longer. After epithelialisation, the balloon will be drained and the catheter removed.
A few small studies have reported more than 80% of women healed well and their cysts or abscesses didn't return after balloon catheter insertion.
Possible complications of balloon catheter insertion include:
- pain while the catheter is in place
- pain or discomfort during sex
- swelling of the lips around the opening of the vagina (labia)
If a cyst or abscess keeps coming back, a surgical procedure known as marsupialisation may be used.
The cyst is first opened with a cut and the fluid is drained out. The edges of the skin are then stitched to create a small "kangaroo pouch", which allows any further fluid to drain out.
When the procedure is complete, the treated area may be loosely packed with special gauze to soak up fluid from the wound and stop any bleeding. This will usually be removed before you go home.
Marsupialisation takes about 10 to 15 minutes and is usually performed as a day case procedure, so you won't have to stay in hospital overnight. It's usually carried out under general anaesthetic, although local anaesthetic can be used instead.
Although complications after marsupialisation are rare, they can include:
- the abscess returning
- pain – you may be given painkillers for the first 24 hours after the procedure
After marsupialisation, you'll be advised to take things easy for a few days. You should avoid having sex until the wound has completely healed, which usually takes about two weeks.
Removing the Bartholin's gland
Surgery to remove the affected Bartholin's gland may be recommended if other treatments haven't been effective and you have repeated Bartholin's cysts or abscesses.
This operation is usually carried out under general anaesthetic and takes about an hour to complete. You may need to stay in hospital for two or three days afterwards.
Risks of this type of surgery include bleeding, bruising and infection of the wound. If the wound does become infected, this can usually be treated with antibiotics prescribed by your GP.
There are a number of alternative ways of treating a Bartholin's cyst, but they're less commonly used or aren't widely available. These are described below.
Silver nitrate gland ablation
Silver nitrate is a mixture of chemicals sometimes used in medicine to burn (cauterise) blood vessels to stop bleeding. A small, solid stick of silver nitrate is used in silver nitrate gland ablation.
A cut is made in the skin surrounding your vagina and the wall of the cyst or abscess. The cyst or abscess is then drained and the stick of silver nitrate is inserted into the empty space left after draining the fluid.
The silver nitrate causes the cyst cavity to form into a small, solid lump. After two or three days the silver nitrate and cyst remains are removed or may fall out on their own.
It's possible for the silver nitrate to burn some of the skin of your vulva when it's first used. One small study reported this occurs in about one in every five women who receive this treatment.
Carbon dioxide laser
A carbon dioxide laser can be used to create an opening in the skin of your vulva so the cyst can be drained.
The cyst can then be removed, destroyed using the laser, or left in place with a small hole to allow fluid to drain from it.
During needle aspiration, a needle and syringe are used to drain the cyst. It is sometimes combined with a procedure called alcohol sclerotherapy, where the cavity is filled with a 70% alcohol liquid after being drained. This is left in the cyst cavity for five minutes and then drained out.
Advice after surgery
To help your wound heal and reduce the risk of infection after surgery, you may be advised to avoid:
- having sex and using tampons for up to four weeks
- using perfumed bath additives for up to four weeks
- driving or performing tasks that need careful attention for 24 to 48 hours after having a general anaesthetic