An estimated 75% of women experience a vaginal yeast infection at some point in their lives. So while you may be uncomfortable, you’re not alone. The itching and burning that comes with a vaginal yeast infection can be embarrassing to talk about, but you can easily get treatment. Read on to learn about the symptoms and causes of these very common infections, how you can find relief, and when to see a doctor.
What Is a Vaginal Yeast Infection?
Let’s first talk about some female anatomy. The vagina is an elastic, muscular canal with a soft, flexible lining that connects the uterus or womb to the outside world. The vagina receives the penis during sexual intercourse and is the birth canal through which a baby passes from the uterus at childbirth. At the inner end of the vagina is the cervix of the uterus. At the outer end of the vagina is the vulva. The vulva is made up of outer and inner ‘lips’ called the labia majora and the labia minor.
A vaginal yeast infection is a fungal infection that causes itching and irritation of the vagina and vulva.
Vaginal yeast infections are extremely common. In fact, in the United States, they are the second most common type of vaginal infection (after bacterial vaginal infections) and are the reason for an estimated 1.4 million outpatient healthcare visits every year. Vaginal yeast infections are rare before puberty and after menopause.
The good news is that they can be easily treated with medications, even if you suffer from them relatively frequently.
Causes of Vaginal Yeast Infections
Vaginal yeast infections are caused by a fungus, most commonly candida albicans, which is why these infections are also called ‘vaginal candidiasis’, ‘vulvovaginal candidiasis’ or ‘candidal vaginitis.’
Candida normally lives in your vagina and other places on your body without causing any problems. However, candida has the potential to cause an infection if candida is able to grow and multiply. This may be because ‘good’ bacteria called Lactobacillus are no longer able to effectively keep candida growth under control.
When there is candida overgrowth, or if the fungus penetrates into deeper cell layers of your vagina, you can get the symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection. This can occur due to:
- Uncontrolled diabetes
- An impaired immune system (immunocompromised)
- Hormonal imbalance
- Lack of sleep
- Drinking excessive alcohol
- Wearing tight-fitting or wet clothing
Vaginal Yeast Infection Symptoms
The most common symptom of a vaginal yeast infection is intense itching in and around your vagina. You may also have a vaginal discharge which can be watery, or look like cottage cheese – thick, white and odorless.
Other symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection are:
- Intense burning, especially when you urinate, or during sex
- Swelling and redness around your vulva
- Pain and soreness in your vagina
If your symptoms are so extreme that they cause tears or sores around your vagina, then you may have a complicated infection. Such infections can be caused by a fungus other than candida albicans or bacteria.
Risk Factors for Yeast Infections
Factors that can increase your risk of developing a yeast infection include:
If you have a bacterial infection, your doctor may prescribe you an antibiotic. This medication acts to kill the bacteria causing your infection but it also can kill healthy bacteria, including the beneficial Lactobacillus in your vagina. This can result in an imbalance of the natural vaginal flora and lead to an overgrowth of candida and a vaginal yeast infection. Women who have recently been on antibiotics, or take antibiotics frequently are at a greater risk of developing a vaginal yeast infection.
Increased Estrogen Levels
Vaginal yeast infections are more common in women with increased estrogen levels. If you’re pregnant or taking high-dose estrogen birth control pills or estrogen hormone therapy, you’re at greater risk.
You are at greater risk of a vaginal yeast infection if you are diabetic and are not sufficiently controlling your blood sugar levels. A spike in sugar in the membrane of the vagina.
An Impaired Immune System
Vaginal yeast infections may be a sign of a weakened immune system. This can be caused by various conditions, including an HIV infection, or by medicines that weaken the immune system, such as steroids and chemotherapy.
If you wear clothing that is tight-fitting and made from synthetic materials, the vaginal area is kept moist and warm. This promotes the growth of candida yeast infections.If you are prone to yeast infections, stick to cotton underwear that is relatively loose-fitting.
How Are Vaginal Yeast Infections Diagnosed?
Your doctor will talk to you about your medical history. You may be asked if you have had previous vaginal infections, or if you’ve had any sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Be assured that a vaginal yeast infection is not considered to be an STI, because you can get a yeast infection without having sex.
Once you’ve discussed your medical history with your doctor, you will likely have a pelvic exam. This is where your doctor looks at your external genitals for any signs of infection. Your doctor may use a speculum to hold your vaginal walls open to examine your vagina and cervix. This may feel a little uncomfortable, but will not be painful.
Finally, in order to prescribe the most effective medication, your doctor may use a cotton swab to take a sample of the discharge from your vagina. This will be tested at a lab to determine the cause of your symptoms.
Vaginal Yeast Infection Prevention – What You Can Do at Home
Vaginal yeast infections are rarely serious, but the symptoms are uncomfortable. You can help prevent them with some simple precautions:
Practice Good Hygiene but Avoid Douching
Keeping the vagina clean can help prevent yeast infections. When washing, make sure to clean the inside folds of your vagina where candida yeast is most likely to grow. You can use a mild soap, but know that your vulva does not need soap to be clean. Warm water is enough.
Moreover, dry your entire vaginal area after taking a shower or bath. This is because candida yeast thrives in moist environments. This means you should avoid sitting around in a wet bathing suit or sweaty gym clothes. Wash and change into dry clothes as soon as you can.
Many people think douching is practicing good hygiene. However, when it comes to preventing vaginal yeast infections, douching actually has the opposite effect; it destroys not only harmful bacteria, but also the helpful Lactobacillus that keep candida yeast in check. Douche products also may introduce substances that can change the pH balance of the vagina and wash away the natural protective lining of the vagina. This may leave you more susceptible to yeast and other vaginal infections.
Wear the Right Clothes
Wear underwear made from natural materials, such as cotton, which absorb moisture and keep you dry. Try to avoid underwear made from synthetic fabrics which hold moisture close to your skin and so encourage the growth of yeast. What’s more, synthetic underwear can cause allergy and hypersensitivity reactions which may change the vagina environment and contribute to yeast infections.
Particularly when it’s hot or humid, stay away from tight-fitting clothing, which can cause heat and moisture to build up and provide ideal conditions for yeast growth.
If you have diabetes, it’s important to keep your blood sugar levels under control to discourage yeast growth.
Vaginal Yeast Infection Treatment Options
Vaginal yeast infections can be treated effectively with medications. The treatments depend on the severity and frequency of your infections. It’s important that you follow the directions and use all of the medication, even if you no longer experience symptoms before the end of your treatment course.
Medications for Mild to Moderate Infrequent Symptoms
Antifungal medications can be obtained either over-the-counter or with a prescription from your doctor. They come in many forms such as creams, ointments, tablets, and suppositories. You’ll normally need to take one for 3-7 days to clear up your yeast infection.
Alternatively, your doctor may prescribe a one-time, single oral dose of fluconazole (Diflucan).
Medications for Frequent to Severe Symptoms
About 5% of women get four or more vaginal yeast infections in one year. This is called recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis (RVVC). RVVC is more common in women with diabetes or weak immune systems, but it can also happen in otherwise healthy women.
Doctors most often treat RVVC with a long course of antifungal medicine. Usually this is taken daily for up to two weeks, followed by once a week for up to six months. You may also receive two or three doses of oral fluconazole with a few days between each dose.
There may be other causes of you symptoms which mimic those of a vaginal yeast infection. Trying to treat a non-yeast-related condition with antifungals will be ineffective. What’s more, you can be under the illusion that you are treating it while another problem continues to develop.
Possible causes of symptoms which are not due to a vaginal yeast infection include:
- STIs can cause an itchy discharge and a slight odor.
- Bacterial vaginosis can have similar symptoms to vaginal yeast infections
- Some sanitary products, soaps and laundry soaps can cause a skin reaction or allergy which can give symptoms of redness, soreness and irritation.
- A lack of estrogen causes the skin to thin and this sometimes leads to discomfort, itching or discharge. This is common in post-menopausal women and vaginal lubricants or a small dose of estrogen can help.
- Some skin conditions can cause itchiness in the vaginal area. These may be treated with a steroid ointment.
- A small cut in the vaginal area can itch and feel irritated as it is healing.
When to See a Doctor
If you are not sure if you have a yeast infection or if you have never had these symptoms before, you should see a doctor for a diagnosis and treatment plan.
If you decide to treat your symptoms on your own with an over-the-counter antifungal vaginal cream or suppository and find no relief, it is time to see a doctor. This is especially important if you develop any other symptoms. Your doctor will be able to examine you and decide on the necessary tests to make a diagnosis.
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