Vaginal yeast infections are one of the most common fungal infections affecting women worldwide. Up to 75% of women will experience at least one vaginal yeast infection in their lifetime. But they generally aren’t a big deal and symptoms usually improve after one treatment.
Despite how common they are, not all women are well-informed about vaginal yeast infections. If this sounds like you, please take a few moments to read our informative overview looking at the biological makeup, causes, symptoms, and treatment options available.
We’ll also look at preventative measures and whether or not women should seek medical attention when dealing with a vaginal yeast infection. Even if you aren’t currently suffering from a yeast infection, it’s always good to understand your body.
Candida (the type of yeast behind most vaginal yeast infections) is a single-cell microorganism belonging to the fungus kingdom. Candida is naturally found in small amounts throughout the human body: the mouth, intestinal tract, and the vagina.
Under normal circumstances, Candida levels are controlled by Lactobacillus (a type of beneficial bacteria found in the vagina) within the vaginal microbiome, so it’s unable to reproduce and remains relatively harmless. If Lactobacillus becomes compromised or unbalanced within the vaginal microbiome, Candida can reproduce and quickly overcome the remaining bacteria, resulting in the dreaded vaginal yeast infection.
3 Most Likely Causes of Vaginal Yeast Infections
Unfortunately, the delicate balance of Lactobacillus found in a woman’s vagina can become compromised for a number of reasons.
Antibiotics are important for treating bacterial infections, but they can also attack the beneficial bacteria located throughout your body. When this happens to the bacteria in your vagina, Candida albicans yeast multiplies, throwing off the delicate balance of beneficial bacteria. This typically leads to a yeast infection. Your chances of developing a yeast infection increase with prolonged antibiotic use.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t take antibiotics, but you might want to consider asking your doctor about a prescription for fluconazole (Diflucan) at the same time, if you tend to develop a yeast infection following antibiotic usage.
Douching & Feminine Sprays
As we discussed already, the vagina has a delicate balance of good bacteria that can become misaligned from time to time. Feminine douches are a big culprit behind yeast infections because when they “clean” the vagina, they remove good bacteria in the process. This allows yeast to reproduce and overpower the remaining beneficial bacteria, resulting in a yeast infection.
Like douching, feminine sprays alter the delicate balance of beneficial bacteria and yeast. They can also irritate the skin around the vagina, making a yeast infection more likely to occur.
Some odor is natural and perfectly normal, but if it’s overpowering to the point that you feel the need to use sprays or to douche, it’s a good idea to visit your gynecologist to rule out the possibility of something else being wrong.
It might surprise you, but your clothing choices can make you more likely to develop a yeast infection.
Tight pants (especially jeans) can rub against your vulva, causing irritation while heat and moisture is trapped by the lack of sufficient airflow. This creates the perfect environment for yeast to reproduce, and it won’t take long for an infection to develop.
Wet clothing poses a risk for a similar reason, due to the added moisture near the vagina. It’s recommended that you change out of wet clothing, bathing suits, or workout clothing ASAP to reduce the chances of an infection.
Signs and Symptoms
The most commonly observed signs and symptoms associated with a vaginal yeast infection are as follows:
- Vaginal discharge: odorless, thick, white, may resemble cottage cheese
- Intense itching
- Vaginal rash
- Redness and/or swelling of the vulva
- Soreness in the vagina and vaginal opening
- Burning sensation in vagina during intercourse or urination
What Causes Recurring Yeast Infections?
A recurring yeast infection is an infection that doesn’t respond to treatment at all, or seems to keep coming back. A recurring yeast infection can happen for a number of reasons, and we’ll take a look at some of them now:
Weakened Immune System
A compromised immune system is one of the leading causes behind recurrent yeast infections. The reason for this is because when your immune system has become compromised, it becomes difficult for your body to find enough resources to help fight the infection.
Some women are born with a weakened immune system, but the more likely culprit is developing an illness that attacks the immune system or taking medication like corticosteroids and cancer treatments. Continual high levels of stress also put a toll on your immune system and could easily make you more susceptible to experiencing recurrent yeast infections.
When we’re talking about something that operates on such a precise balance, it doesn’t take much to throw everything out of order.
Uncontrolled diabetes is another common culprit behind a recurrent yeast infection. When you have uncontrolled diabetes, your blood sugar is not managed properly through diet and medication, allowing it to rise to excessive levels. The extra sugar is then absorbed throughout the body, including vaginal tissue, where it can become a food source for the naturally occurring yeast living there.
Luckily, you can maintain your blood sugar levels and you should see a decrease in yeast infections following treatment. It’s recommended that women with diabetes see their doctor periodically throughout the year to ensure that they are free from vaginal yeast infections.
Sometimes you can have a yeast infection, but for whatever reason, your treatment doesn’t seem to work. This can happen when the infection is caused by a different strain of yeast other than Candida albicans.
In this case, traditional yeast infection medications like Diflucan won’t work because they are only designed to treat infections caused by an excess of Candida. To determine the correct strain of yeast behind the infection, your doctor can collect samples and send them for further testing. From there, a diagnosis and treatment plan can be determined and hopefully you find some relief!
On that same note, it’s important to complete any treatment you are taking unless you experience severe side effects or have been instructed otherwise by your doctor.
If you aren’t completing the prescription or product recommendation, the infection isn’t being fully treated and might come back with a vengeance. You may feel relief from your symptoms before you’ve restored a proper bacterial balance, which is why you should always follow through with the full treatment (except in the examples outlined above.)
While vaginal yeast infections are not considered to be a sexually transmitted infection, having sex while treating one can lead to further irritation and prolong the infection, making it more likely to reappear.
It’s important to note that frequent sexual activity can also irritate the vagina and increase the likelihood of a yeast infection developing. Men can get yeast infections, so it’s possible for partners to pass it back and forth if both of them don’t seek treatment at the same time.
It’s Not a Yeast Infection
If you’ve been treating a yeast infection with an appropriate antifungal medication and symptoms have not subsided, there is a chance that the infection could be something else. If this sounds like your situation, your best bet is to seek a second opinion from your gynecologist or family doctor.
Remember, symptoms like itching, burning, and vaginal discharge are not unique to yeast infections. Other possible causes are:
- Sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, gonorrhea, or trichomoniasis
- Hormonal Imbalance
- Allergies or skin irritation
- Bacterial vaginosis
Luckily, in most cases, vaginal yeast infections are easy and quick to treat. Here is a rundown on some treatment options available for women.
Oral Antifungal Medication
If you get the infection diagnosed by your doctor or gynecologist, they will mostly likely prescribe a one-dose medication like fluconazole (Diflucan). You usually only need to take the one pill to eliminate the infection, but your doctor might suggest using an antifungal vaginal cream alongside the medication depending on the severity.
Antifungal Vaginal Cream
Antifungal vaginal creams and suppositories are readily available at most pharmacies and grocery stores without needing a prescription from your doctor. This is a good option if you are familiar with the symptoms and have experience treating vaginal yeast infections already.
Some familiar brands are Monistat, Canesten, and Vagisil. Most of these products are available in a range of treatment lengths, from a single dose to 7 days.
Boric Acid Suppositories
Don’t let the word ‘acid’ scare you because boric acid suppositories are an effective method for treating vaginal yeast infections. Used for over a century, boric acid helps return vaginal acidity to normal levels and has beneficial antifungal and antimicrobial properties to help eliminate the infection.
Probiotics are live bacteria or microorganisms that help counteract the harmful bacteria throughout your body. Although research is still being conducted on whether or not probiotics are a suitable treatment for yeast infections on their own, this study conducted in 2015 found that using probiotics alongside traditional antifungal medication made the medication more effective and recurrence less likely.
Not all probiotics are created equal. You want to look for high-quality suppositories or capsules containing a large quantity of Lactobacillus as this has proven to be the most effective against yeast so far. Additionally, look for low-sugar or no-sugar added options as the yeast can feed off of sugar.
Long Term Treatment
In some cases, especially during treatment for severe or recurring yeast infections, the doctor might prescribe medication to be used over a longer period of time. This could look like:
- Up to 3 doses of fluconazole (Diflucan) taken once per day.
- 14-day antifungal ointment, cream, or suppository.
- Fluconazole taken once per week for 6 weeks.
- Topical antifungal cream applied daily for up to 6 months.
When to Call a Doctor
In most cases, you can treat a vaginal yeast infection on your own with over the counter products and diligence. However, there are going to be situations that pop up that could warrant a trip to the doctor’s office. This includes:
- Your first yeast infection: They’re easy to treat with OTC products but you should rule out the possibility of a more serious infection the first time you experience symptoms. Your doctor will likely give you the go-ahead to self treat using OTC products the next time an infection occurs.
- The infection didn’t get better after treatment: Your doctor might prescribe a second round of antifungal medication or take cultures to determine the real source of the infection.
- You’ve had four or more yeast infections in the past year: Recurrent yeast infections need to be seen by a doctor to rule out other types of vaginal infections and to find the right treatment.
- You’re pregnant: Unfortunately, yeast infections are common during pregnancy. You don’t necessarily need to see your doctor every time you get a yeast infection, but you should talk with your doctor to learn what treatments are safe to use. As always, seek medical attention if an infection doesn’t respond to treatment.
Yeast infections are a virtually unavoidable fact of life for most women. That doesn’t mean you can’t do your best to avoid infection, though. Here are some helpful tips:
- Wear cotton underwear and avoid wearing tight pants.
- Don’t use scented vaginal products, especially feminine douches.
- Wipe from front to back in the bathroom.
- Change out of wet clothing or your bathing suit ASAP.
Vaginal yeast infections are a prevalent issue among women worldwide. Luckily, they are simple to treat, don’t usually cause lasting damage, and there are measures you can take to prevent an infection from occurring in the first place.