The Bartholin glands are a pair of very small secretory organs that are located in the labia minora of the vagina. The glands produce a clear fluid that serves as a lubricant for the vaginal opening. In general, it is not possible to see or feel a healthy Bartholin gland underneath the skin. If a gland becomes infected or blocked, however, a palpable cyst may develop that causes discomfort when exercising, walking, or sitting.
A late-17th century anatomist named Caspar Bartholin was the first professional to clearly document the existence and function of the glands. These glands are located on either side of the base of the vaginal orifice. Each gland is approximately 0.2 inches (about 0.5 centimeters) in diameter and secretes fluid into a 1-inch (2.54-centimeter) duct. The duct feeds into the vaginal orifice, providing a tiny amount of lubrication to the labia.
Medical problems involving a Bartholin gland are rare, but they can be serious. Sexually transmitted bacterial infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, as well as streptococci and staphylococci infection can potentially inflame this gland and lead to an obstruction. Mucus and fluid build up in the gland, further irritating tissue and creating a cyst. Without treatment, a cyst can grow large enough to protrude through the labia and create a soft, palpable mass.
A large cyst is often tender to the touch and causes pain during physical activity. The labia may swell, and a cyst can potentially rupture and discharge a milky white or yellow substance. An untreated infection may eventually result in a disfiguring abscess that continues to harbor bacteria and cause frequent flareups.
It is important for a woman to visit her gynecologist if she notices discharge or a growing mass. A doctor can inspect the cyst, drain fluid, and collect a tissue sample to make sure it is not cancerous. The patient is screened for various sexually transmitted diseases as well to help identify the pathogen responsible for infection.
Most problems with a Bartholin gland can be resolved with oral antibiotics. A doctor might suggest taking warm baths and frequently cleaning the genitals to relieve swelling and pain. Occasionally, surgery may be needed to create a permanent opening in the gland duct to promote drainage and prevent a cyst from returning. A surgeon might also choose to excise a gland that has been severely damaged.