How Yeast Infections Are Diagnosed

Diagnosing yeast infections is best done by a doctor. The standard test involves a physical examination—it looks for a clumpy white discharge and a relatively low vaginal pH. However, that discharge alone is not enough to diagnose a vaginal yeast infection. The doctor must also determine whether there are yeast present in the vaginal secretions.

Yeast infections will affect up to three-quarters of women at some point during their lives. These common infections tend to be frustrating to deal with. They may not have serious long-term health consequences, but they're uncomfortable. They can also lead to depression and feelings of low-self worth in people who experience one yeast infection after another, so a proper diagnosis and treatment are recommended.

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Self-Checks/At-Home Testing

Commercially available home tests for yeast infections are not actually tests for yeast infections. Instead, they are tests to determine if the vaginal pH is abnormal.

Since bacterial vaginosis is more often associated with a high vaginal pH, these tests can suggest whether a diagnosis of yeast or BV is more likely to be accurate. However, these tests are not actually looking for yeast directly, and they can be incorrect.

People should not rely on commercial tests to start at-home yeast infection treatment unless similar symptoms have previously been diagnosed as yeast by a doctor. 

Labs and Tests

The standard test for a yeast infection is to look at a vaginal smear under a microscope. Yeast are very easy to identify visually in such samples.

The vaginal smear can be taken by the doctor. It can also be taken by the patient, and self-smears have been shown to be similarly effective for diagnosing yeast infections. The swab is simple and painless, and you will receive instructions on how to obtain it.

Note: This type of self-smear is different than a home test for yeast. The smear is taken by the patient but the doctor still looks at it under a microscope.

For Recurrent Infections

When a woman has recurrent yeast infections or complicated symptoms, other tests are available. The doctor may try and collect vaginal fluid and grow yeast from that fluid. Doing this allows the doctor to identify the specific type of yeast that are causing the infection. This can make it easier to pick an appropriate treatment. Often, infections that are not curable through standard treatments are caused by less common types of yeast.

High-Tech Tests

There are high-tech tests for yeast infections. These tests are not used very often. They use technology to look for yeast in fluid samples.

As with urine tests for other STDs, molecular tests can find very small amounts of yeast. Unfortunately, this is less useful for a yeast infection than chlamydia or gonorrhea. Why? Because most women have some yeast present in their bodies at all time.

Just having yeast in the vagina isn't necessarily a problem. It's only a problem when the yeast overgrows. Still, over time, it is likely that more and more vaginal testing will move to these molecular methods. Their ease of use, combined with the need for only a small sample size, makes them very attractive. 

Differential Diagnoses 

A number of vaginal health conditions have very similar symptoms. As such, without testing, it can be very difficult to tell whether someone is suffering from a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, or even another bacterial STD.

Fortunately, whatever condition is causing the common symptoms of all these infections—itching, pain during urination, changes in vaginal discharge—is probably easily treatable. However, that's only true if the treatment is correct. That's why testing is so important. Without testing, it's hard to know if you're getting the right medication to cure you.

Frequently Asked Questions

How is a yeast infection diagnosed?

A vaginal yeast infection (vaginal candidiasis) is diagnosed with a pelvic exam. Doctors will examine the affected area and take a swab of vaginal fluid to view under the microscope. If the Candida fungus is not readily identified, a sample of fluid can be sent to the lab for evaluation.

What tests can diagnose a yeast infection?

A yeast infection can be definitively diagnosed with a culture test. This is done by introducing cells from a vaginal swab into a sterile medium to see if yeast will grow. Results are usually available within a few days.

How do you prepare for a yeast infection test?

No preparation is needed. However, you should avoid douching before a pelvic exam as this can strip always fungal cells and make the condition harder to diagnose.  

Are there home tests for yeast infections?

Yes, there are several at-home tests that can help diagnose a yeast infection. The tests don’t detect Candida fungus; rather, they measure vaginal pH as indicated by a color change on the vaginal swab. High acidity (indicated by a color change) is more indicative of bacterial vaginosis. Normal acidity (indicated by a lack of color change) is more indicative of a yeast infection.

Can a man get a yeast infection?

Yes, it is called a penile yeast infection (penile candidiasis) and is diagnosed much in the same way as a vaginal yeast infection. Penile yeast infections are more common in uncircumcised men and are typically recognized by a thick, white, lumpy discharge under the foreskin or within moist folds of skin.

What conditions look similar to a yeast infection?

A yeast infection can sometimes be mistaken for bacterial vaginosis (BV), trichomonas vaginitis (TV), and cervicitis. BV and TV can be differentiated by high vaginal pH (over 4.5). BV is also more likely to have a “fishy” smell. Cervicitis is differentiated by a yellowish or green discharge; it is also more likely to bleed during a pelvic swab.

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