What is Rectovaginal Fistula: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment?

Rectovaginal fistula is an abnormal communication connecting the rectum and vagina characterized by involuntary leakage of stool and gas from the vagina. Symptoms may include difficulty in defecating, incontinence, foul smelling discharge, and painful intercourse. Its causes are diverse, ranging from obstetrical trauma in childbirth to inflammatory bowel diseases. Diagnosis is made through physical examination, imaging, and laboratory testing. Treatment is tailored to the individual patient and may include repair of the fistula using various methods and medications to manage accompanying symptoms. To ensure successful treatment, it is important to accurately diagnose the underlying cause.

A rectovaginal fistula is a type of fistula that affects the area between the anus and the vagina. It is an uncommon medical condition, although not unheard of in patients who have had complicated childbirths or undergone surgery to treat Crohn’s disease.

What Are the Symptoms⁢ of Rectovaginal Fistula?

The most common symptom of a rectovaginal fistula is drainage from the vagina. This drainage is foul-smelling and may contain pus. Other symptoms include:

  • Bleeding or spotting from the vagina
  • Pain in⁤ the perineal area
  • Difficulty controlling gas
  • Frequent ​urinary ‍tract infections (UTIs)
  • Constipation
  • Fecal incontinence

What Are the ​Causes of Rectovaginal ⁤Fistula?

The most common cause of rectovaginal ‍fistula is trauma to the affected area during childbirth. Other causes include:

  • Anal‍ or rectal surgery
  • Infection in the⁣ anal or rectal area
  • Cancer in the anal or rectal area
  • Injury in the anal or rectal area
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis

How‌ Is Rectovaginal Fistula Diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects you have a rectovaginal fistula, they’ll examine your vagina and anus. They may use a small ‌mirror and light to get a better view of the area.

Your doctor may also perform a sphincterotomy ⁣ or vaginoscopy to get a closer look at the ‍fistula. During a sphincterotomy, your doctor will make an incision in the affected area to look for signs ⁣of a ⁢fistula. During a vaginosis your doctor use a‌ speculum to get a better view.

Your doctor may also order an anorectal manometry test or anal electromyography. These‍ tests measure the pressure your muscles generate ⁤when you strain or contract them.

Your doctor may also ⁣use imaging tests such as ⁢MRI,⁢ ultrasound, or CT scans to get a better look⁣ at the affected area.

Treatment for Rectovaginal⁤ Fistulas

Treatment ⁤for rectovaginal fistulas depends on the size and severity of the fistula.

Non-surgical Treatment

  • Antibiotics: Antibiotics may be ⁢prescribed to treat severe infection.
  • Antidiarrheal medications: These medications may ‍be prescribed‌ to slow⁤ down the frequency of your bowel movements and reduce the risk of damage to the affected area.
  • Rectal suppositories: Suppositories can help stop any leakage.
  • Bowel retraining and biofeedback: These treatments may help you regain control of your bowel movements.

Surgical Treatment

Surgery is the ⁣only permanent solution for rectovaginal fistulas. The type of surgery that’s right for you⁣ will depend on the ​type and severity of your fistula.


During a fistulotomy, your surgeon will open up the fistula to try and close‍ it. This is the most common type of surgery for rectovaginal fistulas. However, it may not be suitable if your fistula is too ⁢complex or too close to the sphincter muscles.

Advancement Flap Procedures

Your surgeon may also use a flap procedure to repair the fistula. During a flap ​procedure, your surgeon will move healthy tissue from one area of the body‌ to‌ cover the fistula.‍ This⁣ tissue is called a flap.


If your rectovaginal fistula is due to trauma from childbirth,‌ your doctor may suggest a perineoplasty. During this procedure, your surgeon will‌ reconstruct the area between the⁤ anus⁢ and vagina.

Recovery and Outlook

The recovery timeline depends ‍on the type of ⁤surgery that was used to treat the fistula and the severity of the fistula.

Your doctor will be able to give you‍ a better idea of the recovery‌ time based on your individual⁢ situation. ⁢Generally, however, you can expect to have some soreness or discomfort in the area for several weeks ⁢after surgery.

The success rate of surgery for rectovaginal fistulas is usually very good. After surgery, the fistula should be completely healed and you should be able to go back to all of your‍ normal activities.

Definition and Overview

A fistula is an abnormal tract that forms a tunnel between two organs in the body. If it connects the rectum and the vagina, it is referred to as rectovaginal fistula. Other fistulas that involve the vagina include vesicovaginal fistula (opens into the urinary tract), colovaginal fistula (opens into the colon), and enterovaginal fistula (opens into the small bowel).

Rectovaginal fistulas, just like other vaginal fistulas, are usually painless and do not represent a life-threatening emergency. However, they can cause significant discomfort and emotional distress as they allow the bowel content and gas to pass through the vagina. This leads to incontinence and hygiene problems, which can impact intimacy and self-esteem.

Causes of the Condition

Rectovaginal fistulas commonly develop as a result of trauma during childbirth. They are often observed in developing countries where health care is inadequate. In these countries, rectovaginal fistulas are one of the leading causes of maternal death.

The condition, which is extremely rare in Western culture, can also be the result of episiotomy, a surgical cut between the vagina and the anus made by a midwife or obstetricians during childbirth to enlarge the vaginal opening. This is often necessary if there’s a risk of serious foetal distress due to prolonged labour.

Other less common rectovaginal fistula causes include:

  • Complications of vaginal surgery, such as hysterectomy

  • Crohn’s disease and other inflammatory bowel diseases

  • Diverticular disease

  • Fecal impaction

  • Infections in the rectum or anusPhysical trauma to the anus or vagina (such as in the case of some rape victims)

  • Radiotherapy treatment for cervical cancer

  • Rectal carcinoma

  • Gender or sex reassignment surgery

Key Symptoms

Rectovaginal fistula symptoms, which cause physical discomfort and emotional distress, include:

  • Passages of pus, stool or gas from the vagina

  • Foul-smelling vaginal discharge

  • Recurrent urinary tract or vaginal infections

  • Pain or irritation in the area between the vagina and anus

  • Pain during sexual activity

Who to See and Types of Treatments Available

Doctors often diagnose the condition during a physical examination and assessment of symptoms of rectovaginal fistula. However, additional diagnostic tests are performed to accurately assess its extent. These tests include:

  • Anorectal ultrasound to determine whether there are other problems caused by the fistula and to assess the anal sphincter

  • Blood and urine tests to check for infection

  • Imaging tests to locate the fistula and determine if other pelvic organs are also affected

Although rectovaginal fistulas are easy to diagnose, they are often difficult to cure and patience is required during the evaluation process to fully assess the extent of the condition.

After diagnosing a patient with rectovaginal fistula, it is a common practice for patients to undergo antibiotic therapy for up to three months for the treatment of any inflammation or infection. In some cases, this is enough for some fistulas to close on their own. However, most require a surgical procedure, which involves incising the fistula so it can heal. This can be done through the vagina or rectum (for low fistulas) or via an incision in the abdomen (for high fistulas located at the posterior fornix).

During a rectovaginal fistula repair, a sharp circumferential dissection is made to separate the vagina from the rectum. The entire fistulous tract and the small rim of the mucosa are then incised before the rectal wall is closed with incisions.

Rectovaginal fistula treatment also involves harvesting a tissue graft from other parts of the body or folding a flap of healthy tissue near the fistula to cover the opening. Surgeons also repair the anal sphincter muscles if they have been damaged.

Colostomy, a surgical procedure in which feces is diverted to a bag outside of the body to allow the rectum to heal, is also performed in recurrent or complex cases. This is done when there’s scarring caused by previous radiation treatment or surgery, tissue damage, cancerous tumours, significant fecal contamination, or abscess. If a colostomy is performed, treatment of rectovaginal fistula will take place as soon as the rectum has healed, which can take between eight and twelve weeks. After rectovaginal fistula surgery, the colostomy is reversed to restore normal bowel function.

While waiting for the repair of a rectovaginal fistula, patients are advised to practice good hygiene to prevent infection. They are also given antibiotics and medications to treat inflammation.

Absolutely, Here’s the FAQ for rectovaginal fistula (RVF)

What is a Rectovaginal Fistula (RVF)?

A rectovaginal fistula is an abnormal connection between your rectum and vagina. This connection allows stool and gas to leak from the rectum into the vagina.

What are the symptoms of RVF?

  • Passage of gas, stool, or pus from the vagina
  • Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
  • Frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs) or vaginal infections
  • Pain or irritation in the vaginal area
  • Pain during intercourse

What causes RVF?

  • Childbirth complications (most common cause)
  • Anal or rectal surgery
  • Crohn’s disease or other inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD)
  • Infections in the rectum or anus
  • Physical trauma
  • Radiation therapy for cervical cancer

How is RVF diagnosed?

  • Physical examination
  • Anorectal ultrasound
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Imaging tests (X-ray, CT scan, MRI)

How is RVF treated?

  • Antibiotics (for infection)
  • Bowel management strategies
  • Surgery (the most common treatment):
    • Fistulotomy (incising the fistula for healing)
    • Flap procedures (using healthy tissue to cover the opening)
    • Perineoplasty (reconstructing the area between vagina and anus)
  • Colostomy (temporary): for complex cases

What is the outlook for RVF?

Surgery is often successful in closing the fistula. With proper treatment, most women can return to normal activities.

Additional points to consider include:

  • Risk factors for RVF (e.g., prolonged labor, instrumental delivery)
  • importance of early diagnosis and treatment
  • emotional impact of RVF and support resources


  • Tintinalli JE, et al., Anorectal disorders. In: Tintinalli’s Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide, 7th ed., New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2011.

  • Browning A, et al. Characteristics, management, and outcomes of repair of rectovaginal fistula among 1100 consecutive cases of genital tract fistula in Ethiopia. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics.


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