Women: If you’ve ever had a burning or itching sensation or thick discharge down below, then you likely know the discomfort and frustration of a yeast infection. According to the Office on Women’s Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, yeast infections — also called vulvovaginal candidiasis — are incredibly common. Three out of four women will have a yeast infection at some point in their lives, and almost half of women will have two or more in their lifetime.
Common symptoms of a yeast infection include:
— Itching, irritation, redness and swelling of the vagina and vulva.
— Discharge. Typically, a vaginal yeast infection produces a thick, white, cottage cheese–like discharge. Some women develop a watery discharge during a yeast infection. This discharge doesn’t usually smell strongly. A strong odor may suggest a different type of infection.
— Discomfort or a painful burning sensation, especially while urinating or during sexual intercourse.
“All these symptoms are not specific necessarily to yeast infections, as some other types of vaginal infections can have similar symptoms,” says Dr. Sunitha Posina, a board-certified internist based in the New York City area.
[READ: Tips for Better Vaginal Health.]
What Causes Yeast Infections?
These are caused by an overgrowth of a fungus that’s a normal part of your vaginal flora. “Typically, the organism involved is Candida albicans,” says Dr. Shweta Patel, an OB-GYN at Orlando Health Physician Associates in Florida.
But when conditions in the vagina fall out of the delicate balance needed to maintain good vaginal health, that can encourage an overgrowth of this fungus. “Yeast is an opportunistic organism,” Patel says. “It’s only able to proliferate when there is an imbalance in the population of bacteria that coexist in the vaginal flora.”
Causes of this disruption can include:
— Using antibiotics. An imbalance commonly happens after you’ve taken antibiotics for another ailment. Antibiotic medications don’t discriminate which bacteria they kill, killing both the offending bacteria that’s causing an illness along with beneficial bacteria in the gut and vagina that can lead to gastric distress and yeast infections.
— Having a compromised immune system. Yeast infections also tend to be more common among women with compromised immune systems, such as occurs with chronic infections and conditions including diabetes, HIV and cancer.
— Taking certain medications. Using certain medications, such as steroids or chemotherapy, can also increase the likelihood that you’ll develop a yeast infection. Oral contraceptives can also increase the chances of developing a yeast infection.
— Fluctuating hormones. Yeast infections may also be associated with hormonal fluctuations, as they typically occur in women and teenagers but rarely happen before puberty and after menopause.
— Being pregnant. When you’re pregnant, your estrogen levels increase, and this can tip the balance in the vagina and lead to an overgrowth of yeast cells.
If you think you have a yeast infection, it’s best to visit with your primary care doctor or an OB-GYN to get confirmation that your symptoms are because of a yeast infection, especially if it’s your first time having a yeast infection.
A health care provider can prescribe a single-dose antifungal medication that can cure the problem quickly. You may also be given vaginal suppositories of an antifungal cream that can also quickly quell the infection. You can also buy various over-the-counter antifungal creams and vaginal suppositories to treat a yeast infection, and they’re similar to what your doctor will prescribe.
“If it’s an infrequent occurrence, typically treating with an antifungal topical or oral treatment can very quickly resolve the symptoms,” Patel says.
If you have to wait for an appointment — or you’ve had yeast infections before and know for sure that you’re having another one — the following home remedies might help alleviate some of the symptoms associated with a yeast infection.
— Probiotics. Probiotics are helpful organisms that live in the gut and other parts of the body and can help restore a healthy environment in the vagina. Lactobacilli, a bacterium found in yogurt, can inhibit the growth of Candida albicans. You can take probiotic supplements that contain lactobacilli, which are available over the counter, to address a yeast infection. You can also get probiotics naturally from fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha and tempeh.
— Boric acid. Boric acid is an antiseptic with antiviral and antifungal properties that may help alleviate a yeast infection. It’s available over-the-counter as vaginal suppositories that you insert into the vagina. However, boric acid can be toxic in large doses. You should never use it if you’re pregnant or if you have sensitive or broken skin. It also shouldn’t be taken orally. Be sure to check with your doctor before embarking on a boric acid remedy to understand how best and when to use this approach.
— Coconut oil. Coconut oil has antibacterial and antifungal properties, and some studies have suggested that it can help kill the yeast that causes candidiasis. To use it, apply the coconut oil directly to the vulva and vagina. Some natural health practitioners recommend soaking a clean tampon in coconut oil and then inserting it into the vagina, but there’s little scientific evidence to support using coconut oil in this manner. Again, you should check with your doctor before using this approach.
— Essential oils. Some holistic health advocates recommend using essential oils to help alleviate symptoms of a yeast infection. Tea tree oil and essential oil of oregano both have antifungal properties. Look for pre-made tea tree oil suppositories at a holistic health pharmacy. You can also add three to five drops of essential oil of oregano to an ounce of coconut oil to make a yeast-combating rub. Look for essential oil of oregano that’s made from wild oregano and contains thymol and carvacrol (two antifungal substances). A note of caution, however: You should never ingest essential oils and avoid using these oils if you have sensitive or broken skin.
— Apple cider vinegar. Vinegar is acidic and can cut down on the population of harmful yeast in the vagina. Add a half cup to a lukewarm bath and soak for 20 minutes.
— Immune boosters. Certain foods might also help restore balance in the vagina, such as garlic and foods high in vitamin C. Vitamin C, which is found in citrus fruit, tomatoes, broccoli and other whole foods, can help support a healthy immune system. It’s thought that consuming these immune-boosting foods can help your body regain the delicate balance needed for a healthy vaginal environment.
Prevention of Yeast Infections
If you find that you get yeast infections frequently, think about what might be putting you at higher risk for these infections. “Sometimes it can be due to excessive use of soaps, prolonged use of restrictive undergarments, dietary habits, etc.,” Patel says. “Determining what could be precipitating it can make it easier to prevent additional infections from even developing.”
As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Try the following tips to lessen the probability of developing a yeast infection:
— Don’t over-medicate. Posina recommends “limiting excess use of antibiotics to only when essential,” as this can help prevent the problem before it starts.
— Avoid douching. Douching or using personal care products in the vagina can strip the area of the good bacteria that helps protect you from an overgrowth of yeast. Similarly, using scented feminine products, such as tampons, pads or soaps, can also irritate the skin, disrupting the balance and leading to infection.
— Keep the area dry. Sitting around in a damp swimsuit or sweaty workout gear can be a big trigger for developing yeast infections for some women. Be sure to dry your vulva after showering or bathing.
— Wear loose clothing. Posina recommends opting for “loose-fitting cotton undergarments” to help air circulate and prevent a buildup of moisture that can encourage the overgrowth of yeast.
— Skip the soak. Sitting for a long time in a very hot bath or hot tub can also encourage the overgrowth of yeast.
— Reduce your sugar intake. Yeast thrive on sugar, so reducing the amount of sugar in your diet could help prevent an overgrowth of these organisms.
— Shower after sex. Showering after intercourse or oral sex can help prevent an overgrowth of yeast developing later.
— Adjust your contraception. If you’re on the pill and getting a lot of yeast infections, talk to your doctor about alternative forms of contraception that might be less likely to trigger an infection.
When to See a Doctor
Patel cautions that if you’ve “tried topical or over-the-counter treatments without relief, or if you’ve already been treated with a prescription-grade treatment and have continued symptoms, it might be time to make a trip to the doctor.”
Difficult-to-resolve yeast infections may be caused by “a resistant strain of Candida species,” which may require a longer course of treatment” than what’s typical, she adds.
“Also, if you aren’t sure that it’s a yeast infection, it’s better to have an examination rather than trying to home-remedy it. Some over-the-counter treatments can actually worsen symptoms if used incorrectly or for the wrong kind of infection,” Patel says.
Posina agrees that you should get a proper diagnosis if you’re having symptoms, “given that it could be a yeast infection or another type of vaginal infection.”
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