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Color-Changing Tampons and Pads Could Help You Detect Yeast Infections

Menstrual products on a pink background.

Erstudiostok / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers from India are testing color-changing menstrual products to help women self-diagnose yeast infections.
  •  The products are meant to help women in low-income and rural communities where there are barriers to receiving treatment.
  • Experts say that products which make it easier to test menstrual blood and vaginal discharge could lead to earlier and more accurate diagnoses for common women’s health issues.

Vaginal yeast infections are common around the world. Three out of four women experience the infection at least once. But in areas where women have limited access to health care and information about menstrual health, these infections can pose disproportionately large issues. 

To address these problems, a team from the Manipal Institute of Technology in India is creating tampons and pads that can detect Candida albicans—a fungus that commonly causes vaginal yeast infections. The researchers published their findings in the journal ACS Omega earlier this month.

“I was astonished after hearing that women in rural communities still consider revealing yeast infections to family members, even to physicians, as a taboo,” lead study author Naresh Kumar Mani, PhD, assistant professor of biotechnology at the Manipal Institute of Technology, tells Verywell.  

Mani’s research group studies ways to make frugal tools—those that can be made cheaply—that can be integrated into hygiene products. His team created a chemical solution that can be applied to threads and fibers. This solution causes products to change color when they interact with the fungus or other pathogens. The “smart” tampons and pads can be used to test for urinary tract infections and vaginal yeast infections.

Diagnosing and Treating Yeast Infections

Yeast infections are most often caused by the yeast Candida albicans. Symptoms include white curd-like vaginal discharge and a burning sensation in the vagina and vulva.

These infections can diminish the quality of a woman’s sex life and physical and emotional health. Plus, for people who are immunocompromised, fungal infections can spread more quickly throughout the body and lead to severe outcomes.

Candida albicans is normally regarded as a harmless pathogen," Mani says. "People don’t have symptoms until the disease progresses to the late stages. And people are reluctant to undergo invasive diagnostic procedures. But for immunocompromised people, it causes disaster.” 

Yeast infections can typically be treated with over-the-counter products. These come in the form of vaginal inserts, tablets, or creams with special applicators.

But in communities that are high-risk for these infections and low-income, the authors say testing labs are frequently non-existent or overburdened and the cost is typically a limiting factor when people seek a diagnosis.

“This inequality is most pronounced in developing areas where the lack of substantial public outreach and existing societal taboos results in instances of shame and guilt,” the study authors write. “The lack of reliable, rapid, and inexpensive tools to self-diagnose a UTI in a discreet manner presents a sizable problem affecting a large section of vulnerable people.”

Anna Villarreal, CEO and founder of LifeStory Health, Inc., tells Verywell this is a problem prevalent throughout women’s health. While care may be more accessible in countries like the U.S., there are still large discrepancies in how vaginal infections and UTIs in women are studied and discussed.

“There’s not enough information and communication about some of these diseases, so people might feel embarrassed about very simple and high prevalent diseases,” Villarreal says.

What This Means For You

Until these kinds of products are available, diagnosing yeast infections is best done by a healthcare provider. You can learn more about the kinds of tests used to diagnose these infections here.

How the Menstrual Products Work

Cellulose-based materials like threads and papers make up the base of the research team’s tampons and pads. Threads, like the ones that comprise tampons, contain many binders and hydrophobic substances, which repel water.

But to be useful, tampons and pads must be highly absorbent. So, manufacturers remove the hydrophobic substances through a process called mercerization. This makes the fibers in the pads and tampons more absorbent.

Through this process, many manufacturers use an acidic solution. But to get an accurate test of the pH level in vaginal discharge and other fluids that may interact with the special pads and tampons, the research team needed to use a more neutral solution.

They opted for a heptane wash, which would preserve the pH level of the bodily fluid and allow the product to react when it detects an enzyme secreted by the fungus. The reaction spurs a change in the color of the pad or napkin from white to pink. 

In this initial study, the researchers tested the hygiene products with simulated vaginal discharge samples and found they were highly effective at detecting the presence of C. albicans in the samples.

Providing Care to Rural Communities

The study indicates that the hygiene products treated with this heptane wash can detect the presence of the C. albicans fungus within 10 minutes of contact. This is far quicker than sample tests in clinical settings, which can take between 24 and 72 hours. The products are also expected to have a long shelf life and remain highly stable.  

In settings like in rural India, where testing facilities and healthcare clinics may be spread out and far from women’s homes, getting a clinical test could take several days and hours of travel. 

“This is not economically viable and it causes a financial burden on people,” Mani says. “This cannot replace conventional diagnostic procedures, but it may complement physicians as a pain site tool." 

Creating opportunities for women to self-diagnose may allow them to feel more comfortable seeking help and could have important implications for those who face worse outcomes from infection.

“If we send this to primary healthcare settings or low-resource settings and conduct social awareness programs and educate them, then possibly this may reduce a taboo among women, and they can use it as an at-home testing kit as well,” Mani says.

The Future of 'Smart' Hygiene Products

In the next stages of research, the team seeks to make the testing more sensitive and run studies to account for other potential causes for yeast infections.

Currently, it costs between 22 and 28 cents per item to produce these hygiene products. Mani says that he hopes to bring down the cost of the product through supplementary funding from government agencies and mass production. He expects to bring it to market in the next three to four years.

Apart from C. albicans, Mani says the colorimetric testing technology could be used to help diagnose various infections and even detect antibody levels. Villarreal’s company, LifeStory, is creating self-diagnostic tests which detect certain proteins and biomarkers like hormones in menstrual blood. She says they are working on ways to detect diseases that are prevalent in women, like breast cancer, diabetes, and lung cancer.

She says she hopes that researchers will focus more effort on understanding women’s health and the prevention of common diseases.

“The biggest challenge is because there's not enough research, there's not enough knowledge of diseases,” Villarreal says. “Women get overlooked a lot of times when you go to the doctor, and I think it just takes a long time for them to get diagnosed...At the end of the day, there's hope that people are working towards solutions, and that women have access to them." 

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  1. Prabhu A, Singhal H, Giri Nandagopal M, Kulal R, Peralam Yegneswaran P, Mani N. Knitting Thread Devices: Detecting Candida albicans Using Napkins and Tampons. ACS Omega. 2021;6(19):12667-12675. doi:10.1021/acsomega.1c00806

  2. Jerez Puebla L. Fungal Infections in Immunosuppressed Patients. Immunodeficiency. 2012. doi:10.5772/51512