Tests for identifying fistulas
Symptoms of a rectovaginal fistula can be distressing, but treatment is often effective. Treatment for the fistula depends on its cause, size, location and effect on surrounding tissues.
Your doctor may recommend a medication to help treat the fistula or prepare you for surgery:
• Antibiotics. If the area around your fistula is infected, you may be given a course of antibiotics before surgery. Antibiotics may also be recommended for women with Crohn’s disease who develop a fistula.
• Infliximab. Infliximab (Remicade) can help reduce inflammation and heal fistulas in women with Crohn’s disease.
Most people need surgery to close or repair a rectovaginal fistula.
Before an operation can be done, the skin and other tissue around the fistula must be healthy, without infection or inflammation. Your doctor may recommend waiting three to six months before having surgery to ensure the surrounding tissue is healthy and see if the fistula closes on its own.
Surgery to close a fistula may be done by a gynaecologic surgeon, a colorectal surgeon or both working as a team. The goal is to remove the fistula tract and close the opening by sewing together healthy tissue. Surgical options include:
• Sewing an anal fistula plug or patch of biologic tissue into the fistula to allow your tissue to grow into the patch and heal the fistula.
• Using a tissue graft taken from a nearby part of your body or folding a flap of healthy tissue over the fistula opening.
• Repairing the anal sphincter muscles if they’ve been damaged by the fistula or by scarring or tissue damage from radiation or Crohn’s Disease.
• Performing a colostomy before repairing a fistula in complex or recurrent cases to divert stool through an opening in your abdomen instead of through your rectum. Most of the time, this surgery isn’t needed. But you may need this if you’ve had tissue damage or scarring from previous surgery or radiation treatment, an ongoing infection or significant faecal contamination, a cancerous tumour, or an abscess. If a colostomy is needed, your surgeon may wait eight to 12 weeks before repairing the fistula. Usually after about three to six months and confirmation that your fistula has healed, the colostomy can be reversed and normal bowel function restored.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Good hygiene can help ease discomfort and reduce the chance of vaginal or urinary tract infections while waiting for repair. Other home remedies for people living with a rectovaginal fistula include:
• Wash with water. Shower or gently wash your outer genital area with just warm water each time you experience vaginal discharge or passage of stool.
• Avoid irritants. Soap can dry and irritate your skin, but you may need a gentle unscented soap in moderation. Avoid harsh or scented soap and scented tampons and pads. Vaginal douches can increase your chance of infection.
• Dry thoroughly. Allow the area to air-dry after washing, or gently pat the area dry with a clean cloth or towel.
• Avoid rubbing with dry toilet paper. Pre-moistened, alcohol-free, unscented towelettes or wipes or moistened cotton balls are a good alternative.
• Apply a cream or powder. Moisture-barrier creams protect irritated skin from liquid or stool. Nonmedicated talcum powder or corn-starch also may help relieve discomfort. Ask your doctor to recommend a product. Be sure the area is clean and dry before you apply any cream or powder.
• Wear cotton underwear and loose clothing. Tight clothing can restrict airflow and worsen skin problems. Change soiled underwear quickly. Products such as absorbent pads, disposable underwear or adult diapers can help if you’re passing liquid or stool, but be sure they have an absorbent wicking layer on top.
For best results, be sure to follow any other recommendations from your health care team.
To prepare for your appointment:
Your first appointment may be with your family doctor, primary care provider or gynaecologist. After your initial evaluation, you may be referred to a surgeon who specializes in procedures involving the female reproductive system (gynaecologic surgeon) or one who specializes in treating conditions of the colon and rectum (colorectal surgeon) to discuss treatment options.
What you can do
To prepare for your appointment:
• Ask about any pre-appointment restrictions. At the time you make the appointment, ask if there’s anything you need to do in advance to prepare for diagnostic tests.
• Make a list of symptoms you’re experiencing. Include any that may seem unrelated to a rectovaginal fistula.
• Make a list of your key medical information. Include any other conditions you’re treating, all past surgeries, and the names of any medications, vitamins, herbal remedies or supplements you’re taking.
• Consider questions to ask your doctor. Make a list, take it with you to your appointment, and make notes as your doctor answers your questions.
For a rectovaginal fistula, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
• What’s causing these symptoms?
• Are there other possible causes for my symptoms?
• What kinds of tests do I need? Do these tests require any special preparation?
• Is this condition temporary or long lasting?
• What treatments are available, and which do you recommend?
• Are there any alternatives to your recommended treatment?
• Will I need surgery?
• Do you have any brochures or other printed material that I can take with me? What websites do you recommend?
Don’t hesitate to ask questions during your appointment anytime you don’t understand something.