Unless you’ve had to deal with an uncomfortable and itchy infection down there, you probably haven’t given the word “yeast” much thought. Yeast is used to bake bread, but it’s also something people with healthy vaginas have too.
“Yeast is a type of fungus (known as Candida) that naturally exists in a healthy vagina along with bacteria,” said Kelley Saunders, MD, an OBGYN at Banner – University Medicine Women’s Institute. “Sometimes these organisms get out of balance and the overgrowth of yeast can cause a fungal infection.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), yeast infections, also called vaginal candidiasis, affect 3 out of 4 people with vaginas at least once in their lifetime. While it’s common in women, it’s still not something many people discuss.
If uncomfortable itching has you squirming, you may have wondered if you should use an over-the-counter yeast infection treatment like Monistat or get professional help. Should you visit the urgent care or handle things at home?
Read on to better understand the symptoms and causes of yeast infections, proper treatment and tips to prevent one from happening again.
What causes yeast infections?
Vaginal yeast infections occur when your healthy vaginal chemistry changes and causes a yeast imbalance. Things like shifts in hormones, medicines or a weak immune system can make infection more likely.
“It’s important to note that a yeast infection isn’t a sexually transmitted infection (STI),” Dr. Saunders said. “They can occur in people who have never been sexually active as well as those who are sexually active.”
Some specific risk factors that may increase your risk of developing an infection, include:
- Antibiotics – Antibiotics kill a wide variety of bacteria, including healthy bacteria living in your vagina.
- Hormone changes– Yeast infections are more common during pregnancy or when on postmenopausal estrogen therapy because hormone changes can disrupt the pH balance of the vagina.
- Diabetes – People with diabetes are at a higher risk for yeast infections, especially if blood sugar isn’t controlled.
- Immunosuppression – People with weakened immune systems, such as those with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), taking steroids or other immunosuppressive medications, are at higher risk of getting some types of fungal infections like yeast infections.
“Symptoms are often worse the week before your menstrual period,” Dr. Saunders said. “Like with pregnancy, this may be due to changes in the vaginal pH that can occur when there are shifts in hormones.”
What are the symptoms of a yeast infection?
Yeast infection symptoms can vary from mild vaginal discomfort to severe itching and irritation in the vaginal area.
Common symptoms include:
- Vaginal itching: Itching or irritation around the vaginal opening, or vulva
- Pain and burning when you pee (urinate) or during sex
- Watery or thick, white vaginal discharge that looks like cottage cheese
- Redness and swelling of the vulva and vagina
“It’s important to note that similar symptoms can also occur with other vaginal infections and conditions like bacterial vaginosis, contact dermatitis and STIs like trichomoniasis,” Dr. Saunders said. “Whenever you have burning, itching, discharge or vaginal concerns you should reach out to your health care provider.”
Do yeast infections occur only in the vagina?
Yeast infections can occur in the vagina but also in other areas of the body. You can get a yeast infection on your mouth, throat or tongue, also known as thrush, in your skin folds or navel, penis and scrotum.
“Oral thrush, also commonly caused by Candida albicans, is common in babies and older adults,” Dr. Saunders said.
How do I treat vaginal yeast infections – OTC (over-the-counter) or prescription?
Yeast infections can usually be cured within a few days with proper treatment. You may wish to self-treat with OTC vaginal antifungal creams or suppositories like Monistat, but it’s important to talk to your provider first, either in person or by virtual appointment, for a proper diagnosis and treatment.
“While some people have success with OTC medications, others need antifungal medications to clear up infections,” Dr. Saunders said.
If you’re unable to get in with your provider, urgent care centers are great for these issues and can offer quick and efficient care for non-emergency health problems.
Once a yeast infection is diagnosed, your provider may recommend a topical antifungal medication or oral medication like Fluconazole or Diflucan. However, oral medication may not be recommended if you’re pregnant.
If treatment doesn’t help resolve your symptoms or if your symptoms return, talk to your health care provider. Fewer than 5% of people will experience recurrent vaginal yeast infections (recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis).
“Persistent infections may be due to infection with one of the less common types of Candida, such as Candida glabrata or Candida krusei,” Dr. Saunders said. “A vaginal culture (swab of the vagina) can confirm the diagnosis of the species and guide the best medication for treatment.”
If you’re prone to multiple yeast infections in a year, talk to your provider about getting a prescription for Diflucan, a prescription pill that treats yeast infections, in advance.
Can I prevent yeast infections?
While there are a number of things that can cause an imbalance that may be out of your control, there are some things you can do (or avoid) that can help prevent an infection from striking, including:
- Avoid douche or vaginal deodorant lotions and sprays
- Maintain normal glucose levels if you have diabetes
- Keep things cool and dry down there by wearing cotton underwear
- Change out of wet bathing suits or sweaty workout clothes as soon as possible
- Consider a probiotic supplement or yogurt containing live active cultures
A vaginal yeast infection occurs when too many yeast cells grow in your vagina. Yeast is a fungus that naturally lives in a healthy vagina, but it can sometimes get out of balance and overgrow causing an infection.
There are many things that can throw your bacteria off, including hormones, antibiotics and certain health conditions. Fortunately, yeast infections are easily treated with topical or oral medications, available over the counter or by prescription.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of a yeast infection, including itching, burning and thick discharge, contact your health care provider right away to get a proper diagnosis and treatment. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.