Whether or not soaking in a bath is your idea of self-care, at some point you may find yourself doing so for the sake of your vagina, vulva, anus, or surrounding bits. A sitz bath involves dunking everything below your hips in shallow, typically lukewarm water to help tame various health issues, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
The interesting name for this home remedy originates from the German word sitzbad, meaning “the act of sitting” (sitz) plus “bath” (bad), according to Merriam-Webster. But there’s a ton to know about sitz baths beyond cool linguistic trivia. Here’s some information about the point of taking a sitz bath, when one might come in handy, plus the right way to take a sitz bath for your health.
A sitz bath can help with vaginal, vulvar, and rectal irritation.
“There’s nothing super medical about a sitz bath,” Sara Twogood, M.D., assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Keck Medicine of USC, tells SELF. “It’s just a tool we use to try to calm down acute inflammation and irritation.”
Immersing the affected area in water can help to reduce the pain, discomfort, itching, burning, and swelling that may occur with a wide variety of health conditions impacting the vagina, vulva, and anus.
With that said, sitz baths aren’t typically a standalone treatment. They usually work best in conjunction with other at-home or doctor-prescribed remedies. Even so, they can offer low-cost, low-risk, at-home relief for various health issues, Amber Tully, M.D., a family medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic, tells SELF.
Here are some health conditions that can call for a sitz bath.
These unfortunate cysts occur when the tiny lubricating glands located on either side of the vagina become blocked and swollen, according to the Mayo Clinic. A blocked Bartholin’s cyst can also become infected, resulting in a pus-filled abscess that is approximately zero fun to have hanging out by your vagina. That’s where a sitz bath may help.
Although Bartholin’s cysts sometimes require surgical drainage (and antibiotics if infected), many small ones can rupture and drain on their own with a few daily sitz baths for three to four days, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“Sitting in a warm sitz bath can help to expel materials from a cyst and decrease it in size or pop it,” Clara Paik, M.D., clinic medical director of obstetrics and gynecology at UC Davis Health, tells SELF.
If you had to describe hemorrhoids in one word, “ugh” would be a great candidate. These swollen veins around the anus or in the lower rectum often result from straining during bowel movements or anything else that can put pressure on the area, like pregnancy weight gain, the Mayo Clinic says. Hemorrhoids can be asymptomatic, but they also can cause serious itching, irritation, pain, and bleeding.
Fortunately, hemorrhoids often go away in a week or so with at-home care, according to the Mayo Clinic. This can include over-the-counter topical treatments, adding fiber to your diet to make bowel movements easier, ice packs—and, yep, sitz baths.
In addition to other at-home care, like OTC painkillers and ice packs, sitz baths can help to relieve pain after a vaginal delivery, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Just be sure to ask your doctor if there’s anything you should know about using sitz baths for your specific case of postpartum care.
These little tears in the thin tissue lining the anus result from issues like constipation, straining to poop, passing big or hard stools, and chronic diarrhea, according to the Mayo Clinic. They can also happen due to (ideally) more fun ventures, like anal sex. Either way, anal fissures can lead to irritation, pain and bleeding when you poop, and spasms in your anal sphincter (the muscle that governs your anus).
Sitz baths can help to relax the anal sphincter, according to the Cleveland Clinic, potentially reducing pain and discomfort. This may help to heal the fissure faster since the muscle won’t spasm and potentially crack the fissure open again and again. (Sorry for that mental image.)
Urethritis, cervicitis, and proctitis
These conditions involve irritation of the urethra, cervix, and rectum, respectively. They have a variety of potential causes, including urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis, and sexually transmitted infections such as gonorrhea and chlamydia.
Of course, sitz baths won’t clear up the underlying infection behind inflammation in these body parts. However, by reducing symptoms like burning and irritation, a sitz bath may provide comfort while you wait for more intensive medical treatment to work, Dr. Tully says.
A bunch of things can cause vulvovaginitis, also referred to as vaginitis (inflammation of the vagina) and vulvitis (you guessed it: inflammation of the vulva!). Major offenders include irritation or allergic reactions to substances like soap, bacterial vaginosis, STIs like herpes, and wearing wet garments like a bathing suit for a long time, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Whatever the cause, symptoms of vulvovaginitis include itching, burning, and swelling, all of which sitz baths may help to subdue, Dr. Tully says. As with urethritis, cervicitis, and proctitis, a sitz bath can offer comfort while you wait for any necessary medication to work or for your condition to fade on its own, depending on what your doctor recommends.
This chronic discomfort around the opening of the vagina does not have a clear cause, according to the Mayo Clinic. What is clear is that vulvodynia can lead to unbearable burning, throbbing, itching, stinging, and other uncomfortable symptoms. Sitz baths can be soothing for those with vulvodynia, per the Mayo Clinic, as can other at-home methods like cold compresses, but attempting to treat the condition at its core may involve measures such as local anesthetics and pelvic floor therapy.
Sometimes conservative treatments aren’t enough to resolve some of the above conditions, in which case surgical intervention may be necessary. For example, sitz baths are recommended following surgeries to excise hemorrhoids, drain Bartholin’s cysts, and perform sphincterotomies (procedures to help heal anal fissures).
“Sitz baths are great for helping with discomfort but also wound drainage and cleaning after an operation in these areas, especially after urinating or bowel movements to decrease the bacterial load,” Dr. Paik says.
Of course, you should only include a sitz bath as part of your post-op care if your doctor has given you the OK.
Here’s how to take a proper sitz bath. (It’s really easy.)
Although it depends on the specific condition, the general sitz-bath guidance is to take 10- to 20-minute soaks two to three times a day, according to Dr. Twogood and Dr. Paik. Ask your medical caregiver if that’s the right amount for you, then follow these steps for a successful sitz bath:
1. Choose how to take your sitz bath. You can take a sitz bath in your regular bathtub after filling it with about six to eight inches of water or enough to cover the affected area, Dr. Tully says. (You can fill the whole darn tub if you wish. But when you’re taking multiple sitz baths every day, it can get a little time-consuming to fully disrobe and wait for the entire tub to fill each time.)
If you don’t have a bathtub or simply prefer to use a specialized device for this, you can buy a small sitz bath container designed to submerge just your pelvis and butt. These tools often go over the toilet so you can sit on them in a comfortable position. If you have a similarly-shaped bin around the house, that can work, too.
2. Make sure the tub or container is clean before you take a sitz bath. “Clean it with warm water and soap, and rinse it well,” Dr. Tully says. You don’t need to worry about making the tub or container sterile since the area you’re submerging definitely isn’t sterile itself, Dr. Tully explains. In addition to being unnecessary, residue from harsh cleaners like bleach might irritate your skin.
3. Decide on your water temperature. Lukewarm usually works, the experts say. Dr. Paik recommends thinking about the temperature you would use to draw a bath for a baby. But cool water can be better in other situations, like when you’re trying to soothe pain involved with a condition such as vulvodynia. While it’s hard to go wrong with lukewarm water, it never hurts to ask your doctor for their advice if you’re not sure.
4. Don’t add anything but water without your doctor’s go-ahead. You might hear all kinds of suggestions for what to put in your sitz bath besides water, like apple cider vinegar. Don’t dump anything in there without asking your doctor first. “Just water is generally the best,” Dr. Paik says.
If you have an abrasion, sore, or any kind of opening in your skin, you’ll definitely want to avoid added ingredients because they could cause further irritation, Dr. Tully says. Also, you’ll be exposing your delicate vagina to whatever you add to your sitz bath. This is why doctors recommend against adding anything sudsy or fragrant, like bath bombs or essential oils. These types of ingredients can not only disrupt your vagina’s pH and colony of good bacteria, but also aggravate whatever it is you’re trying to calm down.
If your condition doesn’t go away or worsens, see a doctor.
Whether you’ve been taking sitz baths to self-soothe before seeking medical advice or taking them on doctor’s orders, it’s important to recognize when you need evaluation and possible further treatment.
While the specific signs to look for will depend on your condition, increased intensity of symptoms like pain, swelling, and itching is a clear sign to see a doctor, Dr. Paik says. So are indications of infection, like a fever or strange discharge leaking from a sore. While a sitz bath can be really helpful in certain circumstances, sitting in a bit of water can’t do it all. Sometimes you need to call in additional medical reinforcements.