Bartholin's gland is a gland located near the vaginal opening. This anatomical structure is named for the physician who first noted it in the 17th century. There are usually two of these glands, located around the lower area of the opening. Bartholin's glands secrete lubricating fluids and rarely cause medical problems for patients. Many women are unaware of the presence of these glands, in fact, and the bulk of vaginal lubrication comes from secretions higher up in the vagina.
In healthy patients, these glands, located just inside the labia, are usually difficult to identify. They are too small to palpate and their openings are also very small, making them difficult to spot during a basic physical examination. When women are aroused, a few drops of fluid may emerge from the opening of the gland, but under regular circumstances, the glands do not secrete any lubricating mucus.
One health problem known to occur with the Bartholin's gland is a cyst or abscess. If the opening becomes blocked, mucus can build up inside the gland, forming a swelling that can become as large as a grapefruit, in addition to being very painful. The cyst is usually not caused by an infection, but it can be, and if a patient has repeated cysts, a doctor may recommend taking a culture to check for bacteria or other microorganisms that might be contributing to cyst reformation. More rarely, cells inside the gland can become cancerous and develop into a tumor.
Treatment for a Bartholin's gland abscess can include implanting a temporary drain to allow the mucus to drain completely while the opening clears. The cyst can also be surgically drained with an incision and manual expression of the mucus. Women who have recurrent cysts may discuss other treatment options with their gynecologists. Because the gland is not the sole source of lubrication, it can potentially be removed to prevent future cysts without jeopardizing a woman's health or comfort.
Women who notice pain and swelling around the opening of the vagina may have an inflammation of a Bartholin's gland. It is advisable to consult a gynecologist for diagnosis and treatment. The gynecologist can confirm the cause of the swelling and eliminate sexually transmitted infections and other potential causes of the symptoms in order to provide appropriate treatment. If an infection of a Bartholin's gland is suspected, antibiotics may be given to address it, and patients may also be offered anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce the swelling and increase comfort.