An estimated 75% of women get vaginal yeast infections, which are marked by vaginal itching, burning, and discharge. While they're common -- and uncomfortable -- yeast infections are rarely serious. Identifying and treating an uncomplicated yeast infection early relieves the vaginal itching and burning within a few days. However, vaginal and vulvar irritation can last for up to two weeks.
Too Much Candida
Several kinds of bacteria and other organisms normally live in the vagina, including more than one type of yeast called Candida. Candida albicans normally lives on the surface of your skin, in your digestive tract, and in the vagina, in a healthy balance with other organisms. If something throws off the balance, the yeast can overgrow and cause an infection. Candida albicans is responsible for most vulvovaginal yeast infections.
Yeast infections occur most often in moist and warm places on your body, such as in the vagina or under the arms or breasts. Some "friendly" bacteria in the body -- such as lactobacillus acidophilus, the kind found in some yogurt -- help keep yeast and other types of fungus in check. The normally acidic environment of the vagina also helps prevent candida yeast from overgrowing. But when the acidity, or pH balance, changes, you can get a yeast overgrowth and infection.
A yeast infection is not considered a sexually transmitted disease, but men can get it from their female sex partners. Up to 15% of male partners of women with vaginal yeast infections will develop itching, a mild rash on the end of the penis, or other symptoms.
What Else Could It Be?
Yeast infection symptoms -- such as vaginal itching, burning, and occasional vaginal discharge -- can also be caused by sexually transmitted diseases and other vaginal infections. That's why doctors recommend an office visit for testing -- especially for a first-time yeast infection -- to be sure your symptoms aren't caused by something more serious. Your doctor can diagnose a true yeast infection by looking at a few cells, taken from a quick swab of fluids from the vagina, under a microscope.
Other causes of vaginal itching, burning, and discharge -- which are not a yeast infection -- include:
Bacterial vaginosis (BV). This infection is caused by bacteria, not yeast, which normally live in the vagina and can "overgrow." The classic signs: a discharge with a strong, fishy odor, and pain while urinating.
Trichomoniasis . This infection is caused by a parasite. It's usually spread through sex. Along with vaginal itching, burning, and a foul-smelling green frothy discharge, common symptoms include redness and swelling of the labia. Pain when urinating is another symptom.
STDs. Several sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as herpes and gonorrhea, can mimic yeast infection symptoms. These STDs also can cause painful intercourse or redness or swelling of the labia.
Infection in the cervix. An infection in the cervix can cause a burning sensation or discharge during urination or intercourse.
Pinworms. This parasite can cause a vaginal infection, especially in young girls.
A tampon or IUD. An old tampon or birth control device like a diaphragm or cervical cap left in the vagina too long can cause burning, discharge, or irritation.
All of these conditions need prompt medical attention for diagnosis and treatment.