Roughly 1 million women in the United States experience yeast infections each year. Although they’re typically not life-threatening if treated properly, these infections are definitely uncomfortable. The burning, itching, redness, and white discharge can disrupt your everyday life or cause feelings of embarrassment. Thankfully, several medications can effectively treat vaginal yeast infections.
In this article, I’ll describe the common symptoms and causes of yeast infections. I’ll also cover the most common treatments, including prescription medicine, over-the-counter (OTC) options, and preventive home remedies. Finally, I’ll explain when it’s important to reach out to your provider to confirm that you have a yeast infection and determine the best treatment for you.
What Is a Yeast Infection?
Yeast is a type of fungus that lives in many places in the body. When it’s in balance with our other natural flora, it causes no problems. But when too much yeast grows in a specific area of the body, it causes a yeast infection.
One type of yeast that lives in the digestive tract, mouth, and vagina is called candida albicans. When candida overgrows, it can cause a yeast infection, or candidiasis. The specific name of this fungal infection depends on where it occurs. For example, oral thrush is a yeast infection in the mouth or throat. And, as you may guess, a vaginal yeast infection (also called vulvovaginal candidiasis or vaginal candidiasis) refers to an overgrowth of yeast in the vagina.
Vaginal yeast infections are among the most common types of vaginitis, a condition that refers to inflammation of the vagina. Any vaginitis can cause pain and vaginal discharge. This can make it hard for non-doctors to distinguish between a yeast infection and bacterial vaginosis, another type of vaginitis.
Symptoms & Causes
Symptoms of a yeast infection can range from mild to moderate and most often include:
- An itching sensation in the vulva or vagina
- Thick, white, odorless vaginal discharge that has the consistency of cottage cheese
- Redness or swelling of the vagina and/or vulva
- Cuts or cracks in the skin of the vulva
- Vaginal pain or soreness
- Burning during urination
- Pain during intercourse
- Vaginal rash
- Vaginal dryness
Several things can encourage yeast to multiply in your vagina. Some of the most common causes of vaginal yeast infections are:
- Antibiotic medications: Although antibiotics kill harmful bacteria that cause infections like a urinary tract infection (UTI), these medications also kill good bacteria. Healthy bacteria in your vagina help to keep the yeast there in balance; without enough of it, yeast can overgrow and cause an infection.
- Hormonal changes: Pregnancy, menstruation, and the use of hormonal contraceptives (like the birth control pill) or hormone or estrogen therapy can lead to a change in your hormone levels. This can then disrupt the balance of yeast in your vagina.
- Diabetes: Elevated levels of sugar in your urine and vagina due to diabetes can promote the growth of vaginal yeast.
- Weakened immune system: Living with a chronic medical condition (such as HIV) or using medication that suppresses your immune system (such as chemotherapy) can impact the growth of yeast in your vagina.
- Hygiene: Staying in wet or sweaty clothes or wearing tight non-breathable underwear and pants can contribute to yeast growth.
Yeast Infection Treatment
Before trying any treatments, it’s important to speak to a gynecologist or medical provider to determine whether you truly have a yeast infection, especially if it’s your first time experiencing symptoms.
Many of the signs of a yeast infection also occur with other types of vaginitis, so it can be easy to mistake, for example, bacterial vaginosis for a yeast infection. And each of these requires different treatment.
Once diagnosed, several options can effectively treat a yeast infection. Below are some of the most common treatment options to consider.
If this is your first time experiencing symptoms or if you’re unsure whether or not you have a yeast infection, it’s best to seek a doctor’s medical advice before trying any over-the-counter treatments.
If, however, this isn’t your first yeast infection, OTC remedies like miconazole (Monistat) can effectively treat yeast infections.
These vaginal creams and suppositories are sold at most large drugstores and supermarkets in one-day, three-day, and seven-day strengths. These products often have the same ingredients as prescription medications offered by your healthcare provider, just in less concentrated amounts.
Instead of recommending OTC treatments, your doctor or gynecologist may prescribe prescription antifungal medication. These medications come as creams, ointments, pills, or vaginal suppositories in one-day, three-day, or seven-day strengths. Note that single doses of oral medication such as fluconazole (Diflucan) are not recommended for pregnant women.
Though several home remedies and natural remedies may offer relief from a yeast infection, most medical experts agree that they are ineffective at treating the infection.
One that has been shown to be effective in studies is boric acid suppositories, which are available at health food stores and online.
Other home remedies have not been proven to be effective for treating yeast infections, but may be helpful for preventing a yeast infection.
You can take several actions to help prevent yeast infections, especially if you experience chronic yeast infections.
- Practice good hygiene: Keep yourself dry and clean when possible. Shower after exercising and don’t sit around in wet clothing or bathing suits.
- Wear cotton underwear: Cotton is breathable and absorbs moisture, making it ideal to keep your vagina dry.
- Consider taking probiotics: If you’re on antibiotic medication, have a compromised immune system, or experience recurrent yeast infections, probiotic supplements may help. Lactobacillus, the bacteria found in healthy vaginal flora, may be especially effective.
- Don’t put food or essential oils into your vagina: At-home remedies for treating or preventing a yeast infection include putting apple cider vinegar, tea tree oil, coconut oil, yogurt, or avocado oil into your vagina. Unfortunately, even though some of these may have antimicrobial or antifungal properties in a lab, there is no evidence showing that DIY treatments are effective at preventing or treating yeast infections. In addition to being unproven to help, these products are not clean or sterile and could cause severe irritation or allergic reactions. Undiluted essential oils should never be applied to your skin and no substances other than a prescribed medicine should ever be used inside the vagina.
- Avoid scented products: Though you may love the smell, scented tampons, pads, bubble baths, and laundry detergents can have the side effect of throwing off the balance of bacteria in the vagina.
- Do not douche: Douching is not only unnecessary since the vagina is self-cleaning, it also can disrupt the natural vaginal bacteria.
- Consider boric acid suppositories: Some studies have shown that using boric acid suppositories- which are available online or at health food stores- can be helpful in maintaining a healthy bacteria balance in the vagina and preventing or treating yeast infections.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
If you’re experiencing any of the common symptoms of a yeast infection—including itching, discharge, or burning around the vagina or vulva—talk to your doctor. They can determine whether it’s a yeast infection or if you have another condition such as bacterial vaginosis or a sexually transmitted infection. With the proper diagnosis, they can recommend the correct course of treatment.
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