Overview

A rectovaginal fistula is an abnormal connection between the lower portion of your large intestine — your rectum — and your vagina. Bowel contents can leak through the fistula, allowing gas or stool to pass through your vagina.

A rectovaginal fistula may result from:

  • Injury during childbirth
  • Crohn's disease or other inflammatory bowel disease
  • Radiation treatment or cancer in the pelvic area
  • Complication following surgery in the pelvic area

The condition may cause emotional distress and physical discomfort, which can impact self-esteem and intimacy.

Talk with your doctor if you have signs and symptoms of a rectovaginal fistula, even if it's embarrassing. Some rectovaginal fistulas may close on their own, but most need surgical repair.

Symptoms

Depending on the fistula's size and location, you may have minor symptoms or significant problems with continence and hygiene. Signs and symptoms of a rectovaginal fistula may include:

  • Passage of gas, stool or pus from your vagina
  • Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
  • Recurrent vaginal or urinary tract infections
  • Irritation or pain in the vulva, vagina and the area between your vagina and anus (perineum)
  • Pain during sexual intercourse

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if you experience any signs or symptoms of a rectovaginal fistula. A fistula may be the first warning of a more serious problem, such as an infected, pus-filled area (abscess) or cancer. Identifying the cause of the fistula can help your doctor determine a treatment plan.

Causes

A rectovaginal fistula may form as a result of:

  • Injuries during childbirth. Delivery-related injuries are the most common cause of rectovaginal fistulas. This includes tears in the perineum that extend to the bowel, or an infection of an episiotomy — a surgical incision to enlarge the perineum during vaginal delivery. These may happen following a long, difficult, or obstructed labor. These types of fistulas may also involve injury to your anal sphincter, the rings of muscle at the end of the rectum that help you hold in stool.
  • Crohn's disease. The second most common cause of rectovaginal fistulas, Crohn's disease is an inflammatory bowel disease in which the digestive tract lining is inflamed. Most women with Crohn's disease never develop a rectovaginal fistula, but having Crohn's disease does increase your risk of the condition.
  • Cancer or radiation treatment in your pelvic area. A cancerous tumor in your rectum, cervix, vagina, uterus or anal canal can result in a rectovaginal fistula. Radiation therapy for cancers in these areas can also put you at risk. A fistula caused by radiation usually forms within six months to two years after treatment.
  • Surgery involving your vagina, perineum, rectum or anus. Prior surgery in your lower pelvic region, such as removal of your uterus (hysterectomy), in rare cases can lead to development of a fistula. The fistula may develop as a result of an injury during surgery or a leak or infection that develops afterward.
  • Other causes. Rarely, a rectovaginal fistula may be caused by infections in your anus or rectum; infections of small, bulging pouches in your digestive tract (diverticulitis); long-term inflammation of your colon and rectum (ulcerative colitis); dry, hard stool that gets stuck in the rectum (fecal impaction); or vaginal injury unrelated to childbirth.

Complications

Physical complications of a rectovaginal fistula may include:

  • Uncontrolled loss of stool (fecal incontinence)
  • Hygiene problems
  • Recurrent vaginal or urinary tract infections
  • Irritation or inflammation of your vagina, perineum or the skin around your anus
  • An infected fistula that forms an abscess, a problem that can become life-threatening if not treated
  • Fistula recurrence

Among women with Crohn's disease who develop a fistula, the chances of complications are high. These can include poor healing, or another fistula forming later.

Oct. 17, 2015
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