Vulva, vagina & female urethra


Anatomy & histology-vulva, vagina & female urethra

Last author update: 1 February 2013
Last staff update: 22 August 2023 (update in progress)

Copyright: 2002-2023,, Inc.

PubMed Search: Anatomy vulva vagina

Jesus Adrian Chavez, M.D.
Monika Roychowdhury, M.D.
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Cite this page: Chavez JA, Zynger DL, Roychowdhury M. Anatomy & histology-vulva, vagina & female urethra. website. Accessed September 26th, 2023.
  • 4 weeks:
    • Germ cells arise from yolk sac

  • 5 - 6 weeks:
    • Germ cell migrate to urogenital ridge, mesothelium of urogenital ridge proliferates to form epithelium and stroma of gonad, incorporating germ cells, resulting in elevation of overlying ectoderm
    • Anteriorly, this results in the formation of the genital tubercle, which becomes the clitoris
    • Laterally, two parallel ridges, each composed of a medial and lateral fold, develop into the labia minora
    • They are joined anteriorly to form the clitoral frenulum and posteriorly to form the fourchette or posterior frenulum of the labia
    • Epithelium of the labia minora and of the clitoral hood are of ectodermal origin

  • By the end of 6 weeks:
    • Urorectal septum divides the cloaca anteriorly in the urogenital sinus, posteriorly in the anal canal; both of these structures are covered respectively by the urogenital and the anal membrane
    • Degeneration of the central portion of the urogenital membrane results in the hymen opening
    • Lateral Müllerian ducts (paramesonephric ducts) form from fusion of coelomic lining epithelium, proximal portion forms fallopian tubes, caudal portion fuses to form uterus, upper vagina
    • Urogenital sinus forms lower vagina and vestibule, fuses with Müllerian ducts

  • By 16th week:
    • Junction of the distal vagina with the urogenital sinus results in the development of the vaginal vestibule, which is identifiable by the 16th week
    • Vaginal vestibule is of endodermal origin except for a small area immediately anterior to the urethra, which is of ectodermal origin - this area represents the site of insertion of the urethral septum, dividing the urethra from the genital tubercle
    • Junction of the epithelium derived from endoderm and that derived from ectoderm is seen in the adult on the inner aspects of the labia minora, marked by the junction of keratinized with nonkeratinized epithelium
    • This line of demarkation is referred to as the vestibular line of Hart

  • In men:
    • Müllerian inhibitory substance from testes causes regression of Müllerian ducts and paired Wolffian (mesonephric) ducts form epididymis and vas deferens
    • If no functional testes, Müllerian ducts persist and mesonephric duct regresses; mesonephric duct vestiges may persist as Gartner duct cysts in cervix or vagina
  • Vulva:
    • Immediately external to vagina
    • Composed of: mons pubis, clitoris, labia minora, labia majora, vulvar vestibule, vestibulovaginal bulbs, urethral meatus, hymen, Bartholin and Skene glands and ducts, vaginal introitus

  • Bartholin glands:
    • Corresponds to bulbourethral glands in male

  • Clitoris:
    • Erectile tissue similar to corpora cavernosa of penis
    • Lymphatics drain to deep inguinal nodes

  • Hymen:
    • Nonkeratinized stratified squamous epithelium

  • Labia majora:
    • Form the lateral boundaries of the vulva
    • Composed of folds of adipose and fibrous tissue
    • Fuse anteriorly into mons pubis
    • Posteriorly terminate 3 - 4 cm anterior to anus where they are united by posterior commissure or fourchette
    • Histologically, skin contains outer lining of stratified squamous epithelium, consisting of basal layer of cells (stratum malpighii), thin granular layer and horny layer
    • Composed of keratinized stratified squamous epithelium with hair follicles and eccrine, apocrine and sebaceous glands

  • Labia minora:
    • Consist of two folds of connective tissue which contain little or no adipose tissue
    • Anteriorly, labia minora divide into two parts
    • One part passes over clitoris to form prepuce
    • Other joins beneath clitoris and forms frenulum
    • Posteriorly, they blend with medial surfaces of labia majora
    • Skin and mucosa of labia minora are rich in sebaceous glands
    • Deeper area contains dense connective tissue
    • Composed of nonkeratinized stratified squamous epithelium, usually no adnexae

  • Vestibule:
    • Area between the hymen and Hart line
    • Lined by nonkeratinized squamous epithelium
    • Structures found in vestibule include: major vestibular (Bartholin) glands, minor vestibular glands, periurethral (Skene) glands, urethra

  • Minor vestibular gland:
    • Correspond to penile glands of Littre
    • Concentrically located within the vestibule
    • Shallow glands (extending no deeper than 3 mm into the underlying dermis) lined by single layer of mucin secreting columnar cells that merge with stratified squamous epithelium of vestibule
    • Open directly onto the surface

  • Glands:
    • Apocrine glands (scent glands):
      • Develop secretory function at adrenarche
      • Identical to those of axillae, breast and perianal regions
      • Height of secretory cells varies
      • Lumina of glands are large compared to lumina of eccrine glands
    • Eccrine glands (sweat glands):
      • Primarily involved in heat regulation
      • Function before puberty
      • Lined by layer of epithelial cells that contain eosinophilic cytoplasm
    • Sebaceous glands:
      • Alveolar, holocrine glands which do not contain lumina
      • Each gland composed of several lobules
      • Cells in each lobule form delicate network filled with fat
    • Skene glands:
      • Periurethral glands analogous to prostate
      • Mucus secreting columnar epithelium merges with duct urothelium, then stratified squamous epithelium of vestibule

  • Vulvar lymphatics:
    • Drainage for all but clitoris is to superficial inguinal nodes
  • Extends from vulva to uterine cervix
  • Derived from paired Müllerian ducts
  • Layers are mucosa, muscularis, adventitia
  • Mucosa composed of basal, intermediate and superficial squamous epithelium; responsive to steroid hormones
  • Lamina propria (subepithelial stroma) composed of elastic fibers, rich venous and lymphatic network, some multinucleated stellate stromal cells
  • Wolffian (mesonephric) duct, aka Gartner duct, runs deeply along lateral vaginal walls; single small duct surrounded by cluster of small glands lined by cuboidal epithelium with eosinophilic secretion in lumen
  • Lymphatic drainage: external iliac nodes (upper anterior wall), deep pelvic, rectal and aortic nodes (posterior vagina), interiliac nodes (lower vagina), also inferior gluteal and femoral nodes
  • Maturation index:
    • Ratio of parabasal to intermediate to superficial cells of vaginal epithelium (sampled at middle third of lateral vaginal wall)
    • Sample often obtained simultaneous with Pap smear to detect hormonal effects in menopausal and postmenopausal women
    • Increased maturation in vaginal epithelium may be due to estrogenic effect of tamoxifen (Clin Exp Obstet Gynecol 1998;25:121)
Female urethra
Definition / general

Clinical features

Microscopic (histologic) description
  • Urothelium
    • Basal layers composed of either low columnar or cuboidal cells, followed by several layers of polyhedral cells
    • Most superficial layer composed of round, dome shaped umbrella cells that are occasionally multinucleated and flattened according to amount of distention
  • Nonkeratinizing squamous epithelium
    • Composed of multiple layers
    • Divided in zones according to cell shapes: cuboidal (deepest), polymorphous (middle), squamous / flattened (superficial)
  • Periurethral glands
    • Periurethral (Skene) glands: lined by columnar or cuboidal epithelium with surrounding connective tissue and smooth muscle (Ann Anat 2002;184:341)
    • Minor vestibular glands (Littré glands): tubuloacinar - mucinous glands with uniform, pale eosinophilic to clear cytoplasm and basally flattened nuclei in penile urethra (Mills: Histology for Pathologists, 4th Edition, 2012)

Positive stains

Negative stains
Diagrams / tables

Images hosted on other servers:

Hart line

Female urethra: embryology and anatomy

Clinical images

Images hosted on other servers:

Labia majora


Gross images

Contributed by Jesus Adrian Chavez, M.D. and Debra L. Zynger, M.D.

Female urethra (blue, distal) and bladder

Microscopic (histologic) images

Images hosted on other servers:

Bartholin gland

Sebaceous glands - hyperplasia

Vestibule - nonkeratinized squamous epithelium

Vestibule - minor vestibular glands

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