What Are Vaginal Yeast Infections?

They’re itchy and uncomfortable, and no one really likes to talk about them. But vaginal yeast infections are very common in women. It’s estimated that 75% of all women will have at least one in her lifetime, and 40%-45% will have multiple cases.

Though yeast infections can happen to anyone at any time, there are certain things that make getting them more likely. Most infections can be cleared up quickly and easily.

The vagina normally contains a healthy balance of bacteria and yeast. The hormone estrogen helps bacteria called lactobacilli to grow. These bacteria kill harmful organisms in the vagina and keep you healthy. But when something happens to tip that balance, a fungus called candida can grow out of control and cause a yeast infection.

What Causes Yeast infections?

There are many reasons you could get a yeast infection, including:

  • Hormones: Changes during pregnancy, breast-feeding or menopause (or if you’re taking birth control pills) can change the balance in your vagina.
  • Diabetes: If your diabetes is not well-controlled, the increase in sugar in the mucus membranes (moist linings) of your vagina can create a place for yeast to grow.
  • Antibiotics: These drugs can kill off many of the bacteria that live in your vagina.
  • Douches and vaginal sprays: The use of these products can change the balance in your vagina.
  • A weakened immune system: If you are HIV-positive or have another immune system disorder, the yeast may also grow uncontrolled.
  • Sex: Though a yeast infection is not considered a sexually transmitted infection, it can be passed from person to person through sexual contact.

The Symptoms

Itchiness and discomfort are the main symptoms of a yeast infection, but there are others. You may also experience any or all of the following:

  • Burning, redness, and swelling of the vagina and the vulva (the outer part of the female genitals)
  • Pain or burning when you pee
  • Pain during sex
  • A thick, white, odorless discharge, similar to cottage cheese

If you think you have a yeast infection, see your doctor before treating yourself. The symptoms of yeast infections are similar to other, more serious conditions, including sexually transmitted infections and bacterial vaginosis (bacterial overgrowth in the vagina). An accurate diagnosis is important so you can get the best treatment.

If you don’t have a yeast infection and use antifungal medication, it can make future yeast infections more difficult to treat.

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Treatments

Over-the-counter antifungal creams, ointments or suppositories (with miconazole or clotrimazole) are the most common ways to treat yeast infections. These can take from 1 to 7 days. Your doctor may also prescribe a single-dose pill with fluconazole (an antifungal medicine) for you to take. If you’re pregnant, it’s safe to use creams or suppositories, but not the fluconazole you take by mouth.

It’s important for you to know that some yeast infection medications weaken condoms or diaphragms. That makes it easier for you to get pregnant or contract a sexually transmitted disease. Be sure to read instructions and warnings before using.

If you have diabetes or a weakened immune system, you may get yeast infections over and over again. It’s a condition called recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis (RVVC). If you get yeast infections at least four times a year, your doctor may recommend that you take a weekly fluconazole pill for 6 months to fight them.

What About Probiotics?

Some studies have shown that eating probiotic yogurt or taking Lactobacillus acidophilussupplements may slow the growth of yeast in the vagina, lowering the risk for infections. But more research is needed before a clear connection can be made.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Trina Pagano, MD on March 24, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: "2010 STD Treatment Guidelines."

American Congress of Gynecologist and Obstetricians: “Vulvovaginal Health.”

WomensHealth.gov: “Vaginal Yeast Infections.”

Mycopathologia: “Impact of eating probiotic yogurt on colonization by Candida species of the oral and vaginal mucosa in HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected women.”

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