Consider different etiologies in patients with vaginal pruritus.
CHICAGO -- Diagnosing the cause of vaginal itching, which can have a significant negative impact on a woman's quality of life, can be particularly difficult for multiple reasons, according to Rachel Kornik, MD, of the departments of dermatology and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
"The anatomy is really challenging in this area, and there's a broad differential. Often there's more than one thing happening," Dr. Kornik said at the American Academy of Dermatology summer meeting. "Patients are very anxious when they have all this itching," she said. "It has an impact on personal relationships. Some patients find it difficult to talk about because it's a taboo subject, so we have to make them comfortable."
Dr. Kornik listed many conditions that cause vaginal or vulvar pruritus, falling within a variety of categories: inflammatory, neoplastic, infections, infestations, environmental, neuropathic, and hormonal. But she focused her presentation primarily on the most common causes: contact dermatitis, lichen sclerosus, and lichen simplex chronicus.
The most common factors that contribute to contact dermatitis are friction, hygiene practices, unique body exposures (such as body fluids) and occlusion/maceration, which facilitates penetration of external agents. Estrogen deficiency may also play a role.
Taking a thorough history from the patient is key to finding out possible causes. Dr. Kornik provided a list of common irritants to consider.
* Hygiene-related irritants, such as frequent washing and the use of soaps, wash cloths, loofahs, wipes, bath oil, bubbles, and water.
* Laundry products, such as fabric softeners or dryer sheets.
* Menstrual products, such as panty liners, pads, and scents or additives for retaining moisture.
* Over-the-counter itch products, such as those containing benzocaine.
* Medications, such as alcohol-based creams and gels, trichloroacetic acid, fluorouracil (Efudex), imiquimod, and topical antifungals.
* Heat-related irritants, such as hair dryers and heating pads.
* Body fluids, including urine, feces, menstrual blood, sweat, semen, and excessive discharge.
It's also important to consider whether there is an allergic cause. "Contact dermatitis and allergic dermatitis can look very similar both clinically and histologically, and patients can even have them both at the same time," Dr. Kornik said. "So really, patch testing is essential sometimes to identify a true allergic contact dermatitis."
She cited a study that identified the top five most common allergens as fragrance mixes, balsam of Peru, benzocaine, terconazole, and quaternium-15 (a formaldehyde-releasing preservative) (Dermatitis. 2013 Mar-Apr;24:64-72).
"If somebody's coming into your office and they have vulvar itching for any reason, the No. 1 thing is making sure that they eliminate and not use any products with fragrances," Dr. Kornik said. "It's also important to note that over time industries' use of preservatives does change, the concentrations change, and so we may see more emerging allergens or different ones over time."
The causative allergens are rarely consumed orally, but they may be ectopic, such as shampoo or nail polish.
"What I've learned over the years in treating patients with vulvar itching is that they don't always think to tell you about everything they are applying," Dr. Kornik said. "You have to ask specific questions. Are you using any wipes or using any lubricants? What is the type and brand of menstrual pad you're using?"
Patients might also think they can eliminate the cause of irritation by changing products, but "there are cross reactants in many preservatives and fragrances in many products, so they might not eliminate exposure, and intermittent exposures can lead to chronic dermatitis," she pointed out.
One example is wipes: Some women may use them only periodically, such as after a yoga class, and not think of this as a possibility or realize that wipes could perpetuate chronic dermatitis.
Research has also found that it's very common for patients with allergic contact dermatitis to have a concomitant vulvar diagnosis. In one study, more than half of patients had another condition, the most common of which was lichen sclerosus. Others included simplex chronicus, atopic dermatitis, condyloma acuminatum, psoriasis, and Paget disease.
Therefore, if patients are not responding as expected, it's important to consider that the condition is multifactorial "and consider allergic contact dermatitis in addition to whatever other underlying dermatosis they have," Dr. Kornik said.
Prevalence of the scarring disorder lichen sclerosus ranges from 1.7% to 3% in the research literature and pathogenesis is likely multifactorial.
"It's a very frustrating condition for patients and for physicians because we don't know exactly what causes it, but it definitely has a predilection for the vulva area, and it affects women of all ages," she said. "I also think it's more common than we think."
Loss of normal anatomical structures are a key feature, so physicians need to know their anatomy well to look for what's not there. Lichen sclerosus involves modified mucous membranes and the perianal area, and it may spread to the crural folds and upper thighs. Symptoms can include periclitoral edema, white patches, pale skin, textural changes (such as wrinkling, waxiness, or hyperkeratosis), fissures, melanosis, and sometimes ulcerations or erosions from scratching.
There is no standardized treatment for lichen sclerosus. Research suggests using a high potency topical steroid treatment daily until skin texture normalizes, which can take anywhere from 6 weeks to 5 months, depending on severity, Dr. Kornik said. Few data are available for management if topical steroids do not work, she added.
She recommends first checking the patients' compliance and then considering alternative diagnoses or secondary conditions. Do patch testing, rule out contact dermatitis, and biopsy if needed. Other options are to add tacrolimus ointment, offer intralesional triamcinolone, consider a systemic agent (acitretin, methotrexate, or possibly hydroxychloroquine), or try laser or photodynamic therapy. She emphasizes the importance of showing patients where to apply ointment.
Lichen simplex chronicus
Lichen simplex chronicus is a clinical description of the result of chronic rubbing and scratching. It might be triggered by something that has resolved or linked to other itching conditions, but clinicians need to consider the possibility of neuropathic itch as well.
Features of lichen simplex chronicus can include bilateral or unilateral involvement of the labia majora, erythematous plaques with lichenification, hyper- or hypopigmentation, or angulated excoriations and hypertrophy of labia caused by thickened skin, though the signs may be subtle, she said.
Treatment requires management of the skin problem itself--the underlying cause of the itch--as well as the behavioral component. Topical steroids are first line, plus an antihistamine at night as needed to stop the scratching. If those are insufficient, the next treatments to consider are intralesional triamcinolone (Kenalog), tacrolimus ointment, topical or oral doxepin, mirtazapine, or even selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
Women using topical steroids should also be aware of the possible side effects, including atrophy, infections, and allergic contact dermatitis if the steroid itself or the cream it's in is an allergen. If stinging or burning occurs, switch to a steroid without propylene glycol, she added.
If no changes occur in the skin, clinicians may have to consider the existence of neuropathic pruritus diagnosis, an injury or dysfunction along the afferent itch pathway. Burning is more common with this neuropathy, but itching can occur too.
Dr. Kornik wrapped up with a reminder that vulvar itch is often multifactorial, so clinicians need to chip away at the potential causes - sometimes with cultures, scrapes, and biopsies as needed.
She reported no financial disclosures.
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.
BY TARA HAELLE
Caption: Dr. Kornik
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2018|
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