What’s A Girl Gotta Do?: Bartholin’s Glands

Welcome to the new feature on The Bandwagon. What’s A Girl Gotta Do? will focus on issues that particularly affect women, and I’ll be discussing how we’re usually at a disadvantage, particularly when it comes to medical issues.

Warning! This post delves into the occurrence of Bartholin’s cysts and abscesses. A fairly strong stomach may be required.

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Okay! Almost everyone who was born with a vagina* will also have Bartholin’s glands. They’re located on either side of the vagina opening, and are small ducts which product lubrication during sexual arousal. It’s estimated that 1 in 50 women (that’s 2% of women) will experience a Bartholin’s cyst at least once in their lives. I’m one of the unlucky ones, as I’ve had several, and they almost always turn into abscesses.

So why is there a distinct lack of information on this problem? Oh yes, because it only happens to women. (If you don’t think that sexism occurs in the medical world, get the hell off my blog, & do some damn research.) I want to talk about Bartholin’s glands, the issues some women can face, and how to throttle- I mean, talk to your doctor about it.

What am I talking about?

As outlined above, the Bartholin’s glands are located at the opening of the vagina, and are there to give us lubrication prior to and during intercourse. These glands can get blocked, and the result is a cyst. Some women have cysts in their glands and don’t know they’re there. They can be very small, painless lumps, that go away without further attention. But in other cases, they can grow to the size of a golf ball, become red and inflamed, or get infected. When this happens, the individual can experience horrendous pain.

My story

I got my first Bartholin’s abscess in 2012, while I was a student. I was living over 250 miles away from home, with housemates who were on their placements at primary schools, and without much of a support network. (I may have had a Bartholin’s cyst before this episode, but this is the first time it turned serious.)

I felt a large-ish lump on the ride side of my vagina. It was hot and painful to touch, and inflamed. I did a quick Google search and found advice to do a sitz bath, which is to sit in a few inches of hot (as hot as you can handle) water. These baths are supposed to help Bartholin’s cysts. So, over the course of the evening, I did a couple of sitz baths, to no avail. The lump kept growing. My GP surgery was closed. I tried applying a warm compress, and took ibuprofen for the pain.

That night was pretty scary. It transpired that the cyst had gotten infected, and the infection had entered my bloodstream. I spent the night alternating between hot sweats and chills. I dipped in and out of sleep, feverish dreams mixing with reality. Early the next morning, I tried to ring my GP. On hold, then, finally, no appointments. So I rang NHS Direct. By that point, I was desperate. I could barely crawl up the stairs to do a sitz bath. I had no energy. I was hot, cold, sweating, shivering. I felt like shit, to put it plainly. NHS Direct managed to get me an appointment with my GP, so I dragged myself to the car, and drove down.

Sitting in the waiting room. Pain, pain, can’t sit down. Stood up. Swaying, unsteady, can’t stay up. “Miss Patis!” the receptionist called. “I need you to fill in this form. You’re only a temporary patient at the moment, so you need to register fully.”

I hobbled over to the desk, took the form, and stared at it. I managed to fill in my name, date of birth, address. But where was I born? I sat back down, keeping my weight off my right side, racking my brains on my birthplace.

“I’m sorry,” I said to the receptionist, swaying on my feet. “I can’t remember… I’m not able to…”

ding! My name popped up on the screen. The doctor will see you now. I shoved the forms back at the receptionist and staggered down the hall.

I stayed on my feet as I explained what was going on to the doctor. I could feel sweat pouring down my face. She told me to strip from the waist down, and got me up on the examination table.

“Oh!” she exclaimed. I lifted my head, alarmed. “Oh dear!”

“What?” I said,straining to see. She started pulling tissue paper out of a dispenser on the wall.

“It’s burst!”

I looked on in horror as the wiped the cyst, and lifted up the blood- and pus-covered tissues for me to see.

“Fuck! That’s disgusting! I’m so sorry…”

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The doctor laughed. “Don’t worry, I love this kind of stuff. I’m kinda gross like that.” She then proceeded to squeeze and wipe the cyst, moving on from tissue paper to couch roll, which was scratchy and uncomfortable. She kept going until it was pretty much empty, cleaned the area, and patched me up with some gauze. I was also given a prescription for some antibiotics.

“Have you got someone to pick this up for you?” the doctor asked. I shook my head.

“I drove here, so I can just pop up to the pharmacy up the road.”

“You drove here?!” A nod from me. “Couldn’t someone else have driven you?” A shake. “Well, be very careful driving home. That infection is pretty bad – a few more hours, and you could have ended up in hospital.”

Ah, jolly good. I thanked her, picked up my extra-strength antibiotics, and drove myself home. The drive home was so much easier than the journey to the doctors. When these abscesses burst, the relief is instantaneous. The pressure is gone, as is all the crap clogging up the gland, and you feel better immediately. It took a few days for me to feel back to normal – while the antibiotics worked quickly, I still felt crappy for a while – but the pain was so much more bearable. The area felt sore, and still leaked a bit, but it was nowhere near as bad as it had been.

So, my first abscess of the Bartholin’s gland could have killed me. Sadly, this would not be an isolated incident – I would go on to have dozens more similar experiences. On the only plus side, after this experience, any discomfort at exposing myself to a doctor vanished.

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Dr Patis in the house

After having dealt with that fiasco, the next time I felt the area swelling, I hopped straight into the bath, adding some table salt. Ain’t nobody got time for going to the GP surgery every time, so I soon became a pro at dealing with these little bastards myself. Sitz bath, repeat, place tissue against area, apply some antiseptic cream, try to get comfortable, and force the bugger to burst.

This method usually works, thought it might take a day or two. (I haven’t been desperate enough to take a needle to one yet, and I wouldn’t advise it.) They usually hang around for a few weeks, not quite healed, taunting, but I’ve never had any serious complications (touch wood!). But I am getting quite sick of this now. Isn’t there a long-term solution? Apparently, there is.

What’s a girl gotta do?

So, what’s a girl gotta do to get a doctor to listen to her about her own damn vagina? (Don’t even get me started on my quest to be sterilised. I’ll be dedicating a whole other blog post to that topic.)

My first port of call was the GP. I explained how often I get this little buggers, and how bad they can get. She tried to wiggle out of helping me by asking whether I was certain it was the Bartholin’s glands acting up, and then blaming hidradenitis suppurativa (which I also suffer from) entirely on smoking. (I mean, what? Source please! I asked her if it was correlation or causation, and she conceded that it was correlation. I said I’d do some research into it, got a raised eyebrow in response. Effing doctors.) She checked my blood sugar (because being a fat smoker is responsible for every. thing. ever., in case you didn’t get the memo), which was perfect, then I offered to show her what I was talking about.

I’m getting really good at showing my bits to doctors. She examined me, commented on the level of scarring (cheers!), and admitted that it looks as if I currently have cysts in both glands (I do, one abscessed on Christmas Day. The gift that keeps on giving). She referred me to a gynaecologist, and I’ve got my appointment at the end of this month. Result!

My next step is to attend that appointment, of course, and try to convince the gynaecologist that I’m at the end of my damn tether here. I’ll do a new post after my consultation, to let y’all know where I’m going from here.

In the meantime, I’ve got some triclosan wash to use in the shower – has anyone ever used this for cysts before? I’ve got a nasty sebaceous cyst on my neck, and I rubbed a bit of the triclosan on it last night. It’s definitely less angry today. Castor oil tends to work on the sebaceous cysts if you catch them early enough, but the Bartholin’s cysts do not like castor oil, so beware. If you’ve got any tips on how to deal with this shit, let me know in the comments, or at thebandwagonreviews@gmail.com.

Did you make it to the end? Are you grossed out? Look, the reason I’m being so candid is because some women will truly believe that they are alone in this. But none of us has to suffer alone. Let’s suffer together, share our tips and methods of coping, and see if we can’t force the medical world to listen to us.

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*My lack of knowledge is showing here. I’m not entirely sure if trans-women have Bartholin’s glands, so this post is very cis-focused. Sorry about that! Please do educate me in the comments below, or pop me an email, thebandwagonreviews@gmail.com.

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11 thoughts on “What’s A Girl Gotta Do?: Bartholin’s Glands

  1. Hi Vikki, I’ve been suffering with these abscesses for about 5 years. From my own experience, its best to avoid sitz baths completely, and get yourself to the hospital ASAP once they rear their ugly little heads, mine have never burst without at least 5 people poking at me with a scalpel 😦

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    1. Oh, I feel your pain! I couldn’t go to the hospital every single time I get one, I’d spend my entire life there! Thankfully the sitz baths and the right pressure works for me. I place some cotton wool pads or toilet paper against it and try to sit in a way that isn’t too painful, but so that it puts pressure on it. Tisn’t scientifically proven, mind, just what usually works for me!

      Are you doing anything about this problem, in the long term I mean?

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      1. Wow! Sounds awful 😦 I’m still recovering from my latest marsupialization. Its the same gland every time, so I’m going to look into getting the gland removed completely. There’s not enough info out there about it though, apart from every website saying it may leave you ‘disfigured’

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  2. Hi, yes, I’ve had them.. several. And yes it was because I was a fat smoker too! (colds, sinus infections, and flu also caused by being a fat smoker.) My FAULT. I changed docs. Now I have a cream from my LADY doctor that causes the boil to come to a head, quickly and as soon as you catch it, in its smallest form. Mupirocin Calcium Creme, 2%. I just keep it on hand so I am not running to the doctor all the time. Good luck and you are damn lucky you didn’t die from blood poisoning! Whew. -Kim

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not convinced that Bartholin’s cysts (or any other cysts) are caused by smoking alone. That doesn’t make any sense for people who never smoked, but still have these skin conditions, of which I’m sure there are many.

      I’m glad you’ve found a cream that works! I’m using the antimicrobial wash but it stings quite a bit, and hasn’t done anything for the Bartholin’s cysts, but it does seem to work on the cysts caused by hidradenitis supprativa.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I was joking about the being fat and smoking causing any type of illness. Some doctors just ask you out of the gate if you smoke then blame EVERYTHING on it. I hate that. (By the way I quit years ago and still get the cysts.) People shouldn’t be judged because they get an infection or the flu!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah sorry, my sarcasm detector wasn’t working! Blame the Fibromyalgia! Haha. You’re absolutely right, everything is attributed to being overweight or a smoker, it’s ridiculous. The rheumatologist who diagnosed me with fibro laid out some outlandish claims that my fibro was caused by tattoos! (With zero evidence to back up her claim.) Honestly.

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  3. I too suffer from Bartholin cyst. My first cyst came when i was 17 years old. I wasn’t sure what it was. I just ignored it for five months. It didn’t hurt. It was just annoying. My mom was scared it was a STD so she made me an OB apt. The nurse practitioner had no idea what she was doing! She poked it five times randomly. It was so painful. But i felt so much better when i sat up. Exactly five months later i had another. I compressed heat for three days. The next morning it was gone. I had one a month later. It was so huge my vagina was tearing. After taking antibiotics and compressing heat it finally burst. I wokeup to my bed soaked. I drained the rest. Four months later i had another. I poured some peroxide and it burst. That was my first year of experiencing this pain. (Four in one year.) I had another after i gave birth to my son. But this time the left side. I put a potato slice on it over night. The next day i went to sit and it burst.
    I had one a few months later i had another. It popped by antibiotics. It was really small. Two in just my second year.
    8 months later i had one swell up to the size of a softball! I had to have it drained by a ER doctor. Honestly it didnt hurt. But having it ripped open was hell. But i was relieved. Three months later i had one on the left side. It didnt hurt bad. But my ob drained it. Two in my third year. For a year and a three months i had no pain. But suddenly i had another.. It was beyond painful. My husband poked it with a needle. It drained after two pokes. Then i had another a few months later. That cyst waa poked three times but would not drain! Only a little. Finally after praying i heard a big gush and i ran to the bathroom and squeezed hard until i felt it was all out. I was pain free until a few months later. I had another one full of air and little puss. Then i had no more trouble until thus week.. I have it again. It wont drain.. It will drain puss and blood. But soon as it shrinks and i think oh yes finally.. It just fills up again. I tried tea tree oil.which does brings up the puss and blood. It hurts so bad… I just want to scream!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh they’re awful aren’t they. I *touch wood* haven’t had one for a while, but I get sebaceous cysts all the damn time. I find sitz baths really help, and I use Hibiscrub daily. You can get it on Amazon.

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