When Mia was 22, she woke up one morning with a sore vagina and later discovered a "quarter-sized hard lump" in the area. As a young woman, she struggled to find help and answers but she was finally diagnosed with Bartholin's cysts, a fluid-filled lump near the vaginal opening.
Mia, who is now 39 and asked that her last name not be shared, tells Yahoo Life that she faced constant hurdles trying to figure out what was going on with her vaginal health. "It got worse every single day," she says. "I had to walk like a cowboy. I couldn't wear pants. It was very awkward because I had a brand-new boyfriend — who is now my husband. I was trying to be a cool girl and not someone having a weird health condition."
After she developed symptoms, Mia says she spoke to her doctor on the phone and was told that it sounded like a Bartholin's cyst. However, the doctor suggested that Mia consult a gynecologist, so she made an appointment with someone she had never seen before.
"I went in to see him and I was like, 'I think it's something called a Bartholin's cyst or abscess,' and he basically laughed at me and said no," she recalls. Mia says she then faced a line of questioning about her sex life with the implication that she had a sexually transmitted infection. "It was really weird that he was so resistant to even considering it," she says. So she was given a full STI testing panel and told to go home and "put a tea bag on it."
Mia says she "could barely pee" at that point due to the "searing, burning pain," as the lump grew to the size of an egg. "It felt like somebody took a bicycle pump and blew up the whole thing," she says. She called the gynecologist's office after she developed a fever, and says she was told that she "probably just has a low pain tolerance" before being asked if she tried the tea bag hack. So she headed to her local hospital in intense pain. "I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat — the pain was so bad," she says.
At the hospital, Mia says she saw a young doctor who glanced at her vulva and said he didn't know what was going on. "He wrote me a Vicodin prescription and sent me on my way," she says. "The pain was so bad, the Vicodin did absolutely nothing." Mia says she asked her boyfriend to look at the lump, and he spotted a pin-size hole in the lump that was draining fluid.
He took her to the emergency room at L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "I was in a wheelchair, begging to pass out from the pain while waiting to be seen," Mia recalls. She was given a hospital room and IV antibiotics. "They said, 'There's an infection going on. If we didn't get this medication in you, you may have died,'" she says. The head of gynecology was called in to see her and immediately diagnosed Mia with a Bartholin's cyst. "He asked why I waited so long to get it treated," she says, noting that the doctor was "shocked" that she had withstood so much pain. "He was showing it to medical students, it was so bad," she says.
The cyst burst while Mia was in the hospital, and she was told that there was only a 3% chance she would get one again. "Two weeks later, I got one on the other side," she says. Mia learned that when Bartholin's cysts go untreated for too long, it raises the odds of getting them again. "I would get it on the left side and then the right," she says. "I would have one every couple of weeks for a solid two and a half years. I stopped counting after I got 26."
After reading a story like Mia's, it's understandable to have questions about Bartholin's cysts. Here's what you need to know.
What are Bartholin's cysts?
First, a little anatomy lesson: The Bartholin's glands are located on each side of the vaginal opening, the Mayo Clinic says. The glands secrete fluid to lubricate the vagina and vulva.
A Bartholin's cyst forms when the glands become obstructed and cause fluid to back up into the gland, the Mayo Clinic says. If the fluid becomes infected, it can create an abscess or collection of pus surrounded by inflamed tissue. "It is unknown why some women develop this blockage," Dr. Jonathan Schaffir, an ob-gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. "Most of the time there is no reason, but it can happen from an infection or from a traumatic injury — for example, a tear at the time of childbirth."
How common are they?
About 2% of women will have a Bartholin's cyst at some point in their lifetime, according to the Cleveland Clinic. As with Mia, in some women the cysts can come back. However, doctors aren't sure why this happens.
How are Bartholin's cysts treated?
Experts say it depends. "Sometimes it can go away on its own, and sometimes you need to treat it," Dr. Christine Greves, an ob-gyn at the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies, tells Yahoo Life. Many of the cysts are small, have no symptoms and don't require treatment, Schaffir says. But, if the cyst is growing, causing pain or making sex uncomfortable, he says treatment is recommended.
Treatment usually involves incision and drainage, he says, where a small cut is made in the cyst to let out the fluid and a small rubber tube is left in place to allow the duct to heal around it. "If the cyst is large or if it recurs, a larger incision is made involving suturing in a procedure called marsupialization, usually done in an operating room," Schaffir says. And, if the cyst is infected, antibiotics are recommended, Greves says.
Mia ended up having marsupialization done after she had 15 Bartholin's cysts but says it "didn't really stop them from happening."
She shares that she "hasn't had a full-blown cyst" since she was 30, but she's learned to take really hot baths as soon as she feels symptoms coming on, which seems to help. "Every once in a while, I'll feel like I feel one coming on," Mia says. "I'll do my bath thing and it never goes anywhere."
Mia says she hopes her experience will encourage other people to continue to push for answers if they find themselves in a similar situation. "Don't be afraid to push it with your doctor," she says, noting that she has a cousin who died at 24 from breast cancer after having her symptoms downplayed by physicians. "Push and push," Mia says. "You've got to, because it could be bad — and you deserve treatment."