Adding a Vulvar Self-Exam to Your At-Home Routine

Most of us are aware of how important it is to conduct a self-examination of your breasts regularly. What's less well known is that we should also perform a regular vulvar self-exam. This is an at-home exam that allows you to check for possible abnormalities concerning your vulva (the external area outside of the vagina). 

This article reviews why a vulvar exam is done, how often it should be done, how to prepare, and how to perform the exam.

Woman looking in mirror in her bathrobe
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Why It is Done

Not to be confused with the vagina, the vulva is the external genitals, made up of the labia majora, the labia minora, and the clitoris. By performing a vulvar self-exam, you'll be able to spot any abnormalities that may indicate infection, vulvar cancer, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), or other conditions before they become a larger problem.

A vulvar self-exam teaches you what is normal in appearance for your vulva. No two vulvas look alike, and becoming familiar with the appearance of your vulva will ensure that, if abnormalities do develop in the future, you'll notice.

Vulvar cancer is a rare type of cancer that affects the vulva. There are several types of vulvar cancer. While it's true that it rarely causes symptoms in very early stages, it's important to know these signs so you can quickly report an area of concern to your healthcare provider.

Signs and Symptoms of Vulvar Cancer

Often, there are no signs or symptoms in the very early stages of vulvar cancer. However, as the disease progresses, they can develop. Signs and symptoms of vulvar cancer vary based on the type of cancer and can include:

  • Vulvar itching, buring, or pain (itching is the most common symptom of vulvar cancer)
  • Moles on the vulva
  • Lumps or bumps (flesh colored, white, red, or pink) on the vulva
  • Vulvar sores that don't heal
  • Vulvar skin thickening or flakiness

How Often It Should Be Done

This exam should be done about once a month, in between menstrual cycles. If you are no longer menstruating, you should set a regular date to perform a vulvar self-exam.

How to Prepare

You need only two things to perform a vulvar self-examination: a private area to perform the exam, where you won't be interrupted, and a mirror. The exam itself should only take about five to 10 minutes.

How It is Done

To begin a vulvar self-exam, stand, squat, or sit over the top of a handheld mirror. Make sure you can see your genitals clearly. If it makes things easier, you can ask your intimate partner to assist you with the following steps.

  • Check the area where your pubic hair grows. Look for any moles, spots, sores, changes in skin color or texture, bumps, or rashes.
  • Next, find your clitoris. Look for any growths, bumps, or discoloration.
  • Check your labia majora (the outer lips) and feel for any bumps. Also, visually look for any moles, spots, sores, changes in skin color or texture, bumps, or rashes.
  • Repeat this check with your labia minora (the inner lips).
  • Finally, look at your perineum. The perineum is the space located between the vagina and the anus. Again, look for moles, spots, sores, changes in skin color or texture, bumps, or rashes..

Report anything suspicious or abnormal to your healthcare provider, even if it seems to be small.


Monthly vulvar self-exams are recommended to help you quickly identify abnormalities that could indicate an infection, STI, cancer, or other health concern. 

During the exam, you will look for any spots, sores, changes in skin color or texture, bumps, or rashes on your genitalia. You don’t need any special equipment, just a handheld mirror. Some people ask their intimate partner to help and make it easier.

A Word From Verywell

Many women do not perform vulvar self-exams because they are unaware of the need or feel shame and embarrassment. Learning to perform a vulvar self-exam is a great first step as it will give you a baseline of what your genitalia looks like.

This will help you detect any changes quickly. Report any changes to your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Regardless of the cause, early detection and treatment is beneficial. One of the main reasons for the high cure rate of vulvar cancer is the ability to detect it in its early stages.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How painful is a vulvar biopsy?

    The most uncomfortable part of a vulvar biopsy is the local anesthetic shot given to numb the area. It is given with a tiny needle and feels like a minor sting. Once the anesthetic kicks in, you may feel pressure, but no pain or discomfort. If you are concerned about the shot, ask your healthcare provider if they use a numbing cream before giving the shot.

  • What does a vulvar cancer lump feel like?

    Vulvar cancer can vary in the way it looks and feels. It can be a flesh-colored, red, pink, or white bump, wart, mole, or sore. The skin of the vulva may look and feel thicker and have flakiness to it. It frequently causes vulvar itching, but can also cause pain or burning.

  • Are vulvar cancer lumps painful?

    Sometimes vulvar cancer does not cause any symptoms. It can become painful, but the most common symptoms is itching.

  • What does a vulvar cyst look like?

    A vulvar cyst is also known as a Bartholin’s cyst. Some cysts are soft painless lumps that go away on their own. It may cause an unusual ache with movement or sexual intercourse. Sometimes cysts are red, painful lumps but they can also present as generalized swelling of the vulva (area outside of the vagina).

    If it becomes infected and turns into an abscess it can be filled with pus or greenish-yellow drainage. Infection can also cause a temperature, chills, aches, and malaise (feeling of unwellness).

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Preti M, Selk A, Stockdale C, et al. Knowledge of vulvar anatomy and self-examination in a sample of Italian women. J Low Genit Tract Dis. 2021;25(2):166-171. doi: 10.1097/LGT.0000000000000585

  2. Alkatout I, Schubert M, Garbrecht N, et al. Vulvar cancer: Epidemiology, clinical presentation, and management options. Int J Womens Health. 2015;7:305-313. doi:10.2147/IJWH.S68979

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Vulvar cancer.

  4. National Vulvodynia Association. Vulvar self-examination.

  5. Williams LK, Weber JM, Pieper C, Lorenzo A, Moss H, Havrilesky LJ. Lidocaine-prilocaine cream compared with injected lidocaine for vulvar biopsy: A randomized controlled trial. Obstet Gynecol. 2020;135(2):311-318. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000003660.

  6. Lee M, Dalpiaz A, Schwamb R, Miao Y, Waltzer W, Khan A. Clinical pathology of Bartholin's glands: A review of the literature. Curr Urol. 2015;8(1):22-5. doi:10.1159/000365683

Additional Reading

By Brandi Jones, MSN-ED RN-BC
Brandi is a nurse and the owner of Brandi Jones LLC. She specializes in health and wellness writing including blogs, articles, and education.

Originally written by Lisa Fayed