Most women have a vaginal yeast infection at least once in their lifetime. In the majority of the cases, the infection is caused by a type of fungus called Candida albicans.
A vaginal yeast infection causes irritation, discharge, and intense itching in the vagina and vulva (vaginal opening).
Yeast is a micro organism that develops under certain environmental conditions. It is a fungus that thrives in various parts of our body, including folds in the skin, and the vagina.
Yeast is commonly found in the vagina in small numbers and is controlled by the good bacteria that are also found in the vagina. A vaginal yeast infection occurs when the number of yeast in the vagina goes beyond what is considered as normal.
There are various factors that could lead to the abnormal growth of the yeast in the vagina.
Many women experience at least two episodes of this infection.
It is not a sexually transmitted disease, but it can spread through oral and genital contact.
2 What's the difference between a bacterial infection and a yeast infection?
If you notice abnormal vaginal discharge or itching in or near the vagina, an infection might be at work. However, keep in mind that not every symptom necessarily indicates you have an infection. If symptoms persist or worsen, you should consult your doctor.
The two common causes of abnormal vaginal discharge are bacterial and yeast infections. It may not be possible to confirm a bacterial or yeast vaginal infection based on the symptoms only. Nonetheless, understanding certain characteristic signs and symptoms will help you seek proper care.
Bacterial infections of the vagina (bacterial vaginosis) cause white-grey discharge from the vagina. The discharge has a characteristic fishy smell. Most women with bacterial vaginosis experience heavy discharge right after a period or after sexual intercourse. Bacterial vaginosis usually does not cause itching in the areas near the vagina.
On the other hand, vaginal yeast infections cause a thicker discharge with no noticeable smell. Unlike bacterial vaginosis, the yeast infection is associated with itching and redness in the areas near the vagina. It may also cause pain and discomfort during sex.
Both of these conditions are more likely to affect sexually active women. Nevertheless, any woman can be affected.
Candida albicans or C. albicans is a member of a host of microorganisms present in the digestive tract. In normal conditions, the fungus does not cause any problem and helps to maintain the microbial balance in the gut.
However, when any disease such as HIV-AIDS, or medications including immune-suppressing agents lower your immune functions, they become infectious. Subsequently, failure to stop their abnormal division leads to candidiasis (candidosis).
In addition to infecting the vagina, C. albicans can also cause systemic, skin, and oral infections. Usually, these infections respond to treatments with antifungal agents such as amphotericin B, nystatin, and fluconazole. However, some strains become resistant to treatments and cause chronic infections.
4 How do you get a yeast infection?
There are two ways you can get a vaginal yeast infection.
First: The fungus which causes the infection, Candida albicans, is already present in the vagina, digestive tract, and on the skin. The fungus can become active and cause the symptoms following treatments with antibiotics, immune-suppressing agents, or due to a local injury.
Second: You may acquire the infection through sexual contact with the infected person.
In any case, what determines whether you will develop an active infection or not is how strongly your immune system responds to the invading fungus.
5 How does your doctor diagnose a yeast infection?
The diagnosis is made by examination of the vagina, assessment of the symptoms, and tests to identify the specific microorganism.
In addition, your doctor will examine your medical history, and may ask a few questions to determine if you have greater risks.
If your symptoms are not specific, your doctor may order a test that examines a sample of vaginal discharge under a microscope. This test, called vaginal culture, confirms the type of infection you have.
The symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection include:
Itching and irritation in the vagina
A burning sensation during intercourse
Redness and swelling of the vulva
Vaginal pain and soreness
Watery vaginal discharge which is thick, white and odor-free
A complicated yeast infection occurs if the person experiences severe symptoms, four or more yeast infections, or an infection caused by fungus other than candida.
Most symptoms of the infections are seen around the week before the menstrual cycle. It normally intensifies during periods, but with appropriate treatment it is likely to settle.
Certain conditions like pregnancy, diabetes, and a weakened immune system increase the risk of having a complicated fungal infection.
There are also several other conditions that have similar symptoms to a yeast infection, such as bacterial vaginosis or certain sexually transmitted diseases.
The itching sensation and the redness of the vaginal region can also be triggered due to reactions caused by various chemical products like soaps, lotions, and so on. If you have symptoms that look or feel abnormal, speak to your OBGYN.
Of course, vaginal yeast infections cannot occur in men, but men can still experience a genital yeast infection.
What are the symptoms of a yeast infection in men?
A man may contract a yeast infection through sexual intercourse with an infected woman.
However, such cases are less common and typically present with a different set of symptoms.
Rashes on the penis
Itchy and moist penile skin
Burning sensation on the skin of the penis
These symptoms could also be indicative of other more serious conditions, so speak with your doctor if the symptoms worsen, do not respond to common medications, or cause significant problems.
When to see a doctor
Some women with vaginal yeast infections may see relief without any treatment. However, others may need long-term treatment depending on the severity and recurring nature of the infection.
Talk to your doctor if:
You are pregnant
The symptoms persist even after treating with home remedies
You experience similar sets of symptoms more than once in a year
The symptoms are severe
You have been diagnosed with HIV-AIDS, diabetes, or any other chronic illness
7 How to treat a yeast infection
Getting rid of a yeast infection should not be too complicated if the infection is mild. In such cases, recommended use of OTC creams can provide relief.
You can get tablets, creams, or suppositories of antifungal medications without your doctor’s prescription. Normally, you have to directly apply the medications into the vagina for 3 days. However, the duration of the therapy may vary depending on the severity of the infection, and depending on the treatment product.
Before you apply OTC medications, you must learn how to properly use them.
Some common medications used in OTC preparations are clotrimazole, miconazole, and terconazole.
To treat a yeast infection that does not improve with OTC medications, your doctor may prescribe medications to be taken by mouth. These are available in the form of pills or tablets.
If you are taking any oral medications to treat a yeast infection, you should ask your doctor or pharmacist about potential side effects.
Also, you should always consult your doctor before using any alternative therapies to treat a yeast infection.
What can you do for faster yeast infection relief?
While OTC or prescription medications work to relieve signs of yeast infections, you can take the following steps that may push you towards a rapid recovery:
Commit yourself to a balanced and hydrated diet, and ensure you get enough sleep
Wear cotton underwear, change them frequently, and use hot water to wash them
Avoid wearing tight-fitting clothes, especially overnight
Do not wear wet clothes for a long time
Keep the vagina and surrounding areas clean and dry
Avoid hot tubs
8 Home remedies for a vaginal yeast infection
If you have a vaginal yeast infection, you may use home remedies to improve the symptoms. However, you should remember that each person may respond differently to the same home treatment.
Also, home remedies do not always guarantee complete freedom from the infection. Therefore, you should consult your doctor if the symptoms linger or worsen.
You may find relief in any of the following home remedies for a vaginal yeast infection:
Non-prescription creams that have antifungal activity
You do not need a doctor’s prescription to buy these products. Be sure to follow the instructions on the product to achieve maximum benefits. Pharmacies also sell vaginal tablets or suppositories that contain antifungal medications. Remember not to swallow the tablet.
Yogurt is a well-known probiotic. It contains a number of beneficial bacteria that help to restore the balance of microorganisms in your body. Some studies suggest yogurt could be helpful to treat a vaginal yeast infection. You can eat it for breakfast or as a dessert, or even apply to the affected areas. Make sure the yogurt has no sugar added, as this will severely affect a yeast infection.
Boric acid suppositories
Vaginal capsules containing boric acid are useful to treat vaginal yeast infections that do not respond to other antifungal medications. You can get them from your doctor’s prescription. Alternately, you may also prepare them by filling an empty gelatin capsule with approximately 600 mg boric acid. Consult with your physician before doing this. Because boric acid is toxic in nature, you should not use it on cracked skin or during pregnancy.
Note: Vaginal tablets and capsules are meant for use in the vagina only and should not be swallowed.
Using OTC medications to treat a yeast infection
OTC medications that treat vaginal yeast infection are available without your doctor’s prescription. These medications contain certain antifungal agents which help to curb the growth of the causative fungus.
You can get these medications in the form of tablets, capsules, suppositories, or creams. Learning to how to properly use them increases the chance of successful treatment.
Before you apply the medication, you should first wash your hands with a non-medicated and non-irritating soap and water. However, the use of soap to clean the vagina is not recommended. Instead, use only water to rinse the vagina.
To use a vaginal suppository, follow the tips below:
Vaginal suppositories come with an applicator. An applicator is a device that helps to correctly place the suppository (tablet-like formulation) inside the vagina.
At one end of the applicator, insert the suppository and hold the applicator with the other end.
Now, lie on your back with your knees bent and apart at shoulder width.
Slowly insert the applicator into the vagina as deep as you feel comfortable.
Press the plunger of the applicator. This will help to put the suppository deeper inside your vagina.
Now, take the applicator away from the vagina.
Safely dispose of the applicator (if it is not reusable, read the product label to learn more about disposal) and wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.
Some medications require you to use at bedtime, so read all instructions thoroughly.
Good bacteria is important to curb the growth of yeast in the vagina. Apply some yogurt to the affected area and let it rest for about half an hour or even overnight to get rid of the burning and itching sensations. Use a tampon dipped in yogurt and insert it for two hours or so to allow the good bacteria to directly enter the vagina. Continue this twice a day until you get relief. It is also important to make yogurt a part of your everyday diet to control the growth of yeast infections.
Coconut oil is nature’s best gift for a number of health-related ailments. It has certain anti-fungal properties which can greatly help kill fungi and yeast infections. Coconut oil can be applied liberally over the affected areas of skin.
Apple cider vinegar contains some active properties that largely help in controlling yeast infections. It not only helps clear up the infection, but also eradicates the fungi causing it. Dilute about two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in warm water and drink this solution twice a day until the infection is completely resolved. You can also dilute some apple cider vinegar in warm water and apply it externally on the affected areas. Let the solution rest on the skin for about 20-30 minutes before rinsing with water.
Oregano oil has several compounds that are anti-fungal and help treat infections. Oregano oil also boosts immunity, which can help the body fight various germs and infections. Dilute oregano oil with some olive oil and dab lightly on the affected areas of skin. The oil could be too strong and so must be diluted before application. You can also orally consume one to two capsules of oregano oil every day to boost immunity and fight infection.
Calendula is a popular herb with significant anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory agents that are highly beneficial in treating various types of skin infections, including yeast infections. Applying calendula is easy: just crush a few leaves of the herb and apply externally to the affected area. Repeat until the infection heals completely.
9 Risks and complications
What are the risk factors for yeast infections?
Any factor that weakens your immune system can increase your risk of infections, including those caused by yeast.
A woman’s risk of vaginal yeast infection is increased if she:
Has been on long-term antibiotic or steroid therapy
Uses contraceptive pills or copper-coil-containing contraceptive
Has a chronic illness such as diabetes with uncontrolled blood sugar levels
What you should know
Just like the gut, the vagina has an optimally balanced environment of various microorganisms called vaginal flora. Any disease, medication, or activity that disturbs the vaginal flora can lead to a vaginal yeast infection. In addition, poor quality sleep and an improper diet may also contribute to such infections.
Therefore, you should exercise extra caution if you are using certain medications including contraceptives, antibiotics, and those for diabetes.
10 Vaginal yeast infection FAQs
What causes a vaginal yeast infection?
A vaginal yeast infection is most commonly caused by a type of fungus called Candida albicans. A few cases may also be linked to other species of Candida fungus. The symptoms appear when the fungus, which is naturally present in the vagina, overgrows due to lowered immunity.
Is a vaginal yeast infection a sexually transmitted infection (STI)?
While the infection can spread through sexual intercourse with the infected person, it can also occur in women who have never had sex. Therefore, it is not a true STI.
Can you prevent a vaginal yeast infection?
It is not possible to reduce the risk of catching a vaginal yeast infection to zero. However, there are some ways that may be helpful to make you less prone to the infection. These include wearing skin-friendly underwear, changing them often, and taking probiotics that contain natural healthy bacteria.
Do you need to avoid vaginal douching when you have a yeast infection?
Vaginal douching can actually contribute to yeast infections in the first place, so avoid it completely. It alters the balance of microorganisms in the vagina, known as vaginal flora. This increases the likelihood of fungal overgrowth that may lead to the infection.
How are yeast infections treated in women who have HIV/AIDS?
The method of treatment and the medications used in HIV-infected women are similar to those used in non-HIV women. However, the length of the treatment can be much longer for those who suffer from HIV.
What can you do if you get a yeast infection while you're pregnant?
Your doctor may change some specific medications if they are known to affect the fetus. In addition, you should also take special care to avoid infection-related complications. You should not take any OTC medication without consulting your doctor.
Do any other infections produce similar symptoms to a vaginal yeast infection?
Bacterial vaginosis, chlamydial infections, and gonorrhea may cause similar symptoms. Therefore, if your symptoms do not improve with OTC medications, you should talk to your doctor to identify the exact cause.
Is yogurt beneficial in treating a vaginal yeast infection?
Yogurt is a natural source of probiotic bacteria called “acidophilus”. This bacteria is known to maintain a balance of microorganisms in the intestine. Therefore, daily consumption of yogurt may help to prevent vaginal yeast infection.
What happens if you get a yeast infection during your period?
Often, this is not a concern, as medications (both for local application and oral use) do not affect your period and vice-versa.
Vaginal yeast infection and period: Pads or tampons?
Pads are a better choice, as they do not absorb locally applied medication and have less of a chance of disturbing your vagina than a tampon does.
How long does a vaginal yeast infection last?
The symptoms of an uncomplicated vaginal yeast infection may take up to two weeks to clear.
What does a recurrent yeast infection mean for my health?
If you have a recurrent yeast infection or medications fail to provide expected relief, you should test your blood for HIV and diabetes.
What are the alternative names for a vaginal yeast infection?
Yeast Infection, Vaginal Candidiasis, or Monilial vaginitis.
How do pregnancy and oral contraceptives increase your risk of yeast infections?
Both pregnancy and oral contraceptives increase the level of estrogen in the body. Increased estrogen facilitates the adherence of Candida fungus in the tissues of the vagina. Therefore, vaginal yeast infection is more likely to occur if you are pregnant or use estrogen-containing contraceptive pills.
Which is better for treating a vaginal yeast infection: Creams or vaginal tablets/suppositories?
The effectiveness of any of these formulations depends on the degree of the infection and the areas affected. If the infection is deep in the vagina, suppositories could be a better choice when used properly. However, creams are the preferred formulas when the infection is restricted to the vaginal opening. Speak with your OBGYN to see which is best for your particular condition.
Can my partner use a condom if I am using medications for a yeast infection?
Vaginal medications, including antifungal agents and steroids, may damage the condom. To avoid further aggravating the infection, you should avoid vaginal intercourse until you are finished with treatment, and until all symptoms disappear.
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