Vaginal Yeast Infections (Candidiasis)

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female gender symbolAbout 75% of women get at least one yeast infection during their lifetime. Some women have many yeast infections. Women of all ages can get yeast infections.

What causes yeast infections?

Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of a type of fungus called Candida, also known as yeast. Small amounts of yeast and other organisms are normally found in your vagina, as well as in your mouth and digestive tract. Yeast infections occur when the balance of organisms in your vagina is upset and the amount of yeast in your vagina overgrows, causing an infection. Yeast infections are most likely to act up just before or just after your menstrual period.

This balance of organisms in your vagina can be changed by:

  • Antibiotics (for acne, throat, ear infections, or even other kinds of vaginal infections) because they can kill the normal bacteria in your vagina and let the yeast grow
  • Being overweight
  • Birth control and other contraceptives
  • Diabetes
  • Pregnancy
  • HIV infection
  • Steroids
  • Tight underwear made of material such as nylon or lycra that traps moisture and heat, especially in the summer (you should wear cotton underwear because it absorbs moisture better.)

What are the signs/symptoms of a yeast infection?

The most common symptoms are itching and vaginal discharge. The discharge is often thick, white and curd-like (almost like cottage cheese). The discharge will be odorless. Other signs are burning, redness, and irritation of the vaginal area. Severe yeast infections may cause swelling of the lips of the vagina. Sometimes, women have painful and/or frequent urination because of inflammation of the urinary opening.

Sexual intercourse may also be painful for women because of inflammation of the vagina.

How are yeast infections diagnosed?

A health care provider will use a cotton swab to take a sample of your vaginal discharge. The sample is put on a slide along with a drop of a special chemical and your health care provider or a person working in a lab will look at the sample under a microscope to see if you have an overgrowth of yeast. Your health care provider may also do a culture of the discharge, particularly if you have had yeast infections that keep coming back.

How are yeast infections treated?

Yeast infections are treated with a pill that you swallow, or with a vaginal cream or vaginal suppository (a partially solid material that you insert into your vagina, where it dissolves and releases medicine). Your health care provider will explain to you what your choices are and if one is better than another for you. The pill is especially good if you don’t want to put a cream up inside of your vagina. Some anti-yeast vaginal creams are sold over-the-counter (without a prescription) in pharmacies. Other anti-yeast vaginal creams need a prescription. If you use a cream, then you should not use tampons during the treatment since it will absorb the medication and make it less effective.

Some anti-yeast vaginal medications that are oil-based may weaken latex condoms and diaphragms, so they are more likely to break. Talk to your health care provider about whether you should use a polyurethane condom or not have sex.

Remember: Do not use anti-yeast medications without seeing your health care provider, unless you’ve been diagnosed by a health care provider with a yeast infection more than once so you’re really sure of the symptoms and signs. They don’t work against other kinds of vaginal infections, (such as bacterial vaginosis) that need prescription medications. You would need another prescription medicine to treat the infection.

Can yeast infections cause serious problems?

Yeast infections are not known to cause any serious health problems. However, the yeast infection itself can be very unpleasant, so you want to get it diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.

Is there anything else I can do to prevent yeast infections?

You can lower your risk of getting a yeast infection by:

  • Never use vaginal douche products
  • Wear cotton underwear and loose fitting pants
  • Change out of a wet bathing suit or workout clothes as soon as you can
  • Don’t go in hot tubs
  • Avoid taking antibiotics unless you really need them

It’s possible that eating one cup of yogurt (which contains acidophilus bacteria) a day is helpful in preventing yeast infections. However, realize that eating yogurt alone will not cure or prevent vaginal yeast infections. If you have to take antibiotics and are getting lots of yeast infections, talk to your health care provider about using an anti-yeast cream or pill.

What if I get yeast infections all the time?

Some women get yeast infections every month around the time of their menstrual periods. Your health care provider may tell you that you need to take medicine every month before you get a yeast infection. This is done to stop the symptoms from developing, or if you get a lot of infections you may be told that you need to take oral pills for up to 6 months. Don’t self-treat unless you’ve talked to your health care provider.

Getting a lot of yeast infections could also mean that you have a more serious problem, such as diabetes, so it’s very important to talk with your health care provider.