We've had so many requests for a piece explaining Bartholin's Cysts, and we knew exactly who we wanted to share their first-person experience. Meet Molly-Margaret Johnson, creator of @whatswrongwithmyvagina
Finding a lump. It’s always alarming. Finding a lump on your vulva? Alarming-er. It could be a Bartholin cyst. Lucky for us, they’re common and curable. Never heard of them? Get them constantly? Check this out.
The Bartholin glands are two little glands on both sides of our vaginal opening– the most overlooked MVPs our vagina has. Their purpose? They make us wet! While mostly they’re open and making sure everything runs smoothly, there’s potential for those openings to get clogged or infected. And that is called a Bartholin cyst. Bartholin cysts are what happens when those glands get clogged up and those trapped fluids build up and create a marble-sized lump on the outside of our vagina (on either side of the opening). Most of us have had these; many of them come and go without much drama and sometimes even unnoticed– and sometimes not. These bad boys, when infected, raise hell.
A year ago I got my first Bartholin cyst, and not knowing what it was, I ignored it. The next day after a busy day of running around, the cyst was inflamed, the size of a golf ball, and mad as hell. Freaked out of my mind and still not knowing what it was, I made my way to the ER (knowing any OB/GYN appointment was weeks away from available).
The ER doctor diagnosed it as a Bartholin abscess (an infected Bartholin cyst) and told me I had to have it cut open and drained. The excruciating pain and fear of the procedure were the perfect cocktail for the worst vaginal problem I’ve ever had. The doctor admitted the procedure and the aftermath were less than pleasant. After much-needed Vicodin, the quick and mildly painful procedure began. The doctor sliced the cyst open and drained it, and put a catheter in the opening to let the rest of the juices make their way out over the next few days. Hot.
Here’s the thing with these suckers– once you get one, you’re prone to them (so lucky, right?!). The good news is they rarely escalated to where my first one got. Unfortunately, there’s no precise cause or remedy to these mysterious lumps, but here’s what helped me home remedy mine away: Showering after sex, sitting on a hot water bottle, icing them if they feel inflamed, hot compresses and cotton rounds with witch hazel slipped into my undies. All of these helped, for sure, but this sucker was DETERMINED.
I had one for about three months this past summer, it was the size of a large cherry but completely unirritated. My gynecologist said, as long as there was no pain, you didn’t have to worry about them. I was able to walk, sleep and slut as usual with this lump hanging out with me. While it didn’t bother me physically or aesthetically, in the back of my mind I was always afraid it would get infected again- because there’s no way of telling if it will or won’t. As a preventive measure and a long term solution, I decided to get the marsupialization surgery. This surgery consists of opening up the gland and sewing it open, creating a larger gland opening. The larger the gland, the easier it is for fluids to come out, the less likely of it getting clogged and creating a cyst. The surgery was done under general anesthesia and took about two hours. Recovery was about 4-5 days in bed, all the Netflix and about five baths a day. Beyond that, it was refraining from penetrative sex for about two months.
I’m about five months post-op and my vagina and I have never been happier. No cysts to speak of and I’m thrilled I made the choice to get the surgery. It made my sexual, physical and mental health significantly better.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience!! Its so so so nice to learn that you’re not alone in something so frustrating, life-affecting, and often painful in such a precious and sensitive area.
Here’s my cyst history for anyone who might find it helpful for context, though mine isn’t necessarily a success story. Just coping strategy.
Sometime in 2017 (maybe early in the year?), I experienced the first sign of my Bartholin Cyst. Appeared first after using lotion as lubricant during sex (could’ve been a cause? introduced bacteria? unhealthy ingredients? Unsure.
Continued through life with it going largely unnoticed, except the odd sexual partner drawing my attention to it simply by them being in the area. It was never pointed out by anyone, but I was self-conscious of it.
Aug 27 – swollen and mild pain/discomfort biking. Later that week, a day at the Scandinavian spa (hot and cold water baths) helped it drain almost completely, which I didn’t notice until returning home. I had an IUD inserted shortly before and questioned if that had anything to do with its initial swelling.
The cyst eventually returned, but it wasn’t too disturbing so I put little work/effort towards eradicating it. I lived with it, allowing it to oscillate size between smaller/greater than Golfball before finally deciding to get a specialist’ opinion on my situation. Saw my family doc and was then referred to a gynaecologist, who referred me to another gynaecologist that could perform surgery (the former was quite old and didn’t perform surgery anymore!). But the 3 opinions were helpful in concluding that due to my size, draining made sense.
May 6 – marsupialization surgery. Had no pain but wanted it drained mostly for my own mental health and self-love. The procedure was successful (local sedation – wasn’t nice, but wasn’t terrible. recommended to “get it over with”. The needle for numbing is the worst part but if you breathe through it its managable), not 100% drained, but was assured the rest would ooze out of an approx 1 cm opening over time. Was diligent with cyst baths using Epsom salt and at least 6” water. Avoided biking for 2 weeks, sex for 6 weeks, and for the most part took it pretty easy.
May 18? – Experienced an epic burst, followed another epic burst shortly after (both smelly, red/yellow/white weird, and did I mention smelly). The first I noticed standing, watching a Toronto Raptors playoff game, and the second occurred sitting, enjoying breakfast on my patio outside. The bursts weirdly make you feel super happy and great as if your biggest enemy was just exiled off the face of the earth.
July 21 – had enjoyable sex approximately 4 times since the 6 week mark after marsupialization, but this 5th time today caused noticeable swelling the next day. WHyyyYyyYy~~
July 24 (evening) – experienced uncomfortable swelling. Luckily was not in much pain, but swollen and red for 2 days was enough to encourage me to have it drained at ER as recommended by my GYN at my last appointment with her. Attempted balloon catheter method this time, but wasn’t able to be inserted (hole wasn’t big enough) so I left without the element of assisted draining.
July 27 (evening) – Returned swelling swollen and even more uncomfortable pain than the previous instance. Went to the pool earlier that day… was that a bad idea? could that have infected it? Or perhaps it was likely sore because of drainage incision and extra pressure incurred from swelling.
July 28 – continued pain in AM, 20 min cyst bath w/ 1/2 cup epsom salt. 10 min ice. 20 + min tea tree oil cotton swab (read on a blog), another cyst bath (30 min this time), and hot water bottle (read on a blog). Ended up going to ER at 2pm after discussing multiple scenarios with friends/fam & waking up from a nap still being in pain/discomfort/confusion.
Saw ER doc quickly who confirmed that due to size of cyst and pain, it was worth calling gyno. Waited a while for gyno before finally seeing a resident doc who informed me I’d have to wait until the head doc was done with a c section, so could be a while. Then magically, just before 7, I woke up from an upright chair snooze feeling something oozing out of me. I instantly knew. What. It. Was. Disgusting bloody puss fluid oozed from my vagina and down my leg as i briskly walked to the bathroom where I tried to drain it all out myself and clean up as much as possible. After updating the nurses of my situation, they paged gyno to get one of them to come down and reassess my situation. After another waiting period, another resident came in with the previous and discovered a series of things upon examination:
- smell & puss meant something was happening down there
- There are possibly two cysts, both on the same side (!!! new info)
- Keep catheter in for 4 weeks so skin can adjust to a new, possibly better(?) opening
- Antibiotics just in case
Questions for upcoming GYN meeting…. how can I manage this hurdle moving forward?
- Should I marsupialization one more time & leave a larger opening this time, or consider gland removal all together since it seems quite chronic?
- What are the pros / cons of gland removal, what would my body be missing out on and what are the associated risks
- Should I continue baths for my life if I don’t do surgery? Diet changes? Any ideas about alternative methods of prevention? I’m going to try acupuncture, FLOAT, and perhaps white light treatment
- Lake swimming and pool swimming no go? EVER or just during healing?
- what exactly does Epsom help with in the cyst bath? I was told both that its helpful and that its not necessary.
Hi! Constant sufferer of old Barth, here! Five infections in four years and in the last year it has just been persistent and often bleeds if I orgasm (a new and frustrating development). My doctor has never mentioned the surgery you had, only one where they scrape the gland out and that is only 60% effective. I’m on the verge of tears learning that there might be another option. The last time I saw my gyno (2 months ago) she shrugged her shoulders and told me to be my own detective. This article is gold. Thank you.
This was a great read and very very informative, thank you for sharing.