Most women know the discomfort of a vaginal yeast infection. Three of four women will have at least one during their lifetime, and many women have several.
Yeast is a type of fungus known as candida that is naturally found in the vagina as well as in the mouth and digestive tract. A small amount of yeast is normal, but too much becomes a problem.
While these infections are usually not serious, they can be quite irritating. The more you understand about yeast infections, the easier it may be to treat and prevent them.
“Bacteria normally found in your body help regulate candida growth, but if something upsets the balance or makes your body more yeast-friendly, it can grow out of control and cause an infection,” says Dina Fainman, MD, an OB-GYN with Scripps Clinic Encinitas.
Several factors can affect yeast growth:
- Broad-spectrum antibiotics like tetracycline that are often prescribed for bacterial infections can eliminate both bad and good bacteria, which can lead to yeast overgrowth.
- Hormonal changes due to menstruation, pregnancy, menopause and hormonal birth control can set the stage for yeast infection.
- Clothing that traps moisture or heat in the genital area contribute to ideal conditions for yeast.
- Diabetes that isn’t managed well increases sugar in the body tissues, which can encourage yeast growth.
Conditions that weaken the immune system, such as HIV or cancer, make the body more susceptible to yeast infections.
Vaginal yeast infection symptoms may range from mildly annoying to severely painful. Infections almost always cause intense itching in and around the vagina. Other signs of yeast infection may include:
- Soreness in the vagina
- Swelling and redness around the area
- Vaginal rash
- Pain during sex
- A thick, white discharge
You may have just one symptom or several.
Fortunately, getting rid of a yeast infection is often simple. If you have never had a yeast infection, or you’re not sure what is causing your symptoms, call your primary care doctor or gynecologist. Some infections, such as bacterial vaginosis or sexually transmitted infections, can cause similar symptoms but require different treatment. Your doctor will review your symptoms and may perform a vaginal exam to confirm an infection.
However, if you’ve had infections in the past and know yeast is the problem, treatments for yeast infection are available over the counter. These include several types of anti-fungal creams or suppositories that you insert into the vagina; depending on the strength of the treatment, you may need to use them for one, three or seven days.
These treatments usually include one of the following ingredients:
- Miconazole nitrate
Follow the package directions exactly to maximize the effectiveness of the treatment.
“If over-the-counter yeast infection treatments don’t cure the infection, make an appointment with your doctor,” says Dr. Fainman. “Some infections are resistant to over-the-counter treatments or may need stronger treatment. In this case, we may prescribe Diflucan, which is a pill that you take by mouth.”
Diflucan contains the medication fluconazole. Because it is taken orally, it kills fungus and yeast throughout the body and may cause side effects such as an upset stomach. Usually, one dose is all that is needed.
Some women should not treat a yeast infection without first seeing their doctor, including those who are pregnant, have diabetes or have a weakened immune system.
Women who have four or more yeast infections within a year may need long-term anti-fungal treatment. Recurrent yeast infections may also indicate another medical condition, such as diabetes, so be sure to talk to your doctor if your infections happen often.
Some infections can be avoided by making lifestyle changes. Try these tips to help prevent yeast infections:
- Wear underwear with a cotton crotch and avoid clothing that is very tight in the genital region.
- Change out of damp swimsuits and workout clothes into dry clothes as soon as possible.
- Add lactobacillus acidophilus, natural bacteria that helps prevent yeast overgrowth, to your diet. Yogurt with active live cultures (check the label) is a good source, or you can take supplements.
- If you are prescribed broad-spectrum antibiotics, talk to your doctor about how to ward off a yeast infection.