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. 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 D. Posina, a board-certified internist based in Stony Brook, New York.
[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 V. Patel, an OB-GYN at Orlando Health Physician Associates in Winter Garden, 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 bad bacteria that’s causing an illness along with good 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 Type 2 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.
— 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.
— Vaginal irritants. Allergens or other irritants that may come into contact with the vagina, such as vaginal washes or douches, can also disrupt the balance of the vagina and lead to a yeast infection.
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.
— Incorporating more foods that may help support one’s immune system. 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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Update 06/02/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.