What Is a Yeast Infection?

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A vaginal yeast infection is a common problem caused by the Candida yeast. You can recognize it by the severe vaginal itchiness, white vaginal discharge, and, sometimes, painful urination.

Yeast infections are commonly treated with an over-the-counter antifungal cream or a prescription oral medication. These infections can recur again and again, so much so that some women feel their familiarity with them allows them to self-diagnose.

However, many experts recommend getting a formal diagnosis from a doctor each time yeast infection signs and symptoms arise, just to be sure.

Yeast infection causes and risk factors
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell 

Yeast Infection Symptoms

Common symptoms of a yeast infection include vaginal itching, burning, and irritation. You may have painful urination or frequent urination when a severe yeast infection causes inflammation of the urethral opening. There can also be swelling of the vulva, the area just outside your vagina.

A more visual sign of a possible yeast infection is vaginal discharge, which may be watery or thicker than normal, even white and curd-like (almost like cottage cheese). 

Sexual intercourse may be painful due to inflammation and dryness.


Candida albicans is a yeast-like fungus that is often found in the mouth, vagina, and intestinal tract; it is a normal inhabitant of humans that typically does not have any adverse effects. Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of these normal fungi.

Overgrowth of Candida often happens after you use antibiotics. Other factors that often contribute to infection include pregnancy, use of oral contraceptives, diabetes, chemotherapy, steroid treatment, and other conditions and medications that weaken the immune system.


It is especially important to get a diagnosis by a doctor the first time you think you have a yeast infection. This is because the symptoms might be due to an infection (such as bacterial vaginosis or an STI) that needs a completely different antibiotic or treatment.

Do not treat yourself with over-the-counter medication if you've never been diagnosed with at least one prior yeast infection by your physician. 

Your doctor can do a swab and confirm under the microscope whether it is an overgrowth of yeast or not.

While it was once thought that women with a prior yeast infection could recognize the symptoms and self-treat, that has been called into question; many experts now recommend getting an exam and diagnosis from your doctor each time.

If you instead choose to self-treat with an over-the-counter antifungal product, be sure to see your doctor if your symptoms continue, if you develop other symptoms, if you have a risk of an STI, or if you are not sure whether you have a yeast infection.

Bacterial vaginosis is far more prevalent than yeast infections.

BV is characterized by a foul odor. Untreated bacterial vaginosis can result in pelvic inflammatory disease and can lead to infertility. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as gonorrhea and herpes can also be mistaken for yeast infections.

There are at-home tests for yeast infections that test for the vaginal pH and can suggest whether you have yeast or bacterial vaginosis. However, you should not rely solely on such tests.


If you and your doctor agree that your symptoms are truly caused by yeast, you have several treatment options, including a variety of creams that are available at pharmacies. Over-the-counter (OTC) treatments typically work in one to seven days. Creams available include brand names such as Monistat, Femstat, Gyne-Lotrimin, and Mycostatin.

If you prefer a less messy alternative to the creams that are sold OTC, ask your physician for a prescription medication such as Diflucan, a one-dose oral medication.

If you have a severe infection or have frequent recurrences, your doctor may prescribe a longer course of treatment with Diflucan or other antifungal medications.

There are many lifestyle prevention tips that can reduce your risk of a yeast infection. These include avoiding douching and scented bath products, wearing clothes that are looser in the crotch, wearing cotton-crotch underwear rather than synthetic, and changing your tampon, pad, or panty liner often.

You can avoid vaginal irritation during sexual intercourse by using a lubricant. You may need to use a condom or dental dam to avoid passing yeast back and forth with your sexual partner.

There is some limited evidence that eating yogurt with an active culture and taking probiotic supplements (or using these products vaginally, if appropriate) may help prevent yeast infection. The bacteria in these options are also naturally present in the vagina and help keep yeast from overgrowing.

Boric acid suppositories can be effective against less common strains of yeast that are resistant to the usual treatment. Other remedies such as coconut oil or essential oils do not have any evidence of being effective.

A Word From Verywell

If, after all this effort, you still get a yeast infection, don't worry. It's easy enough to treat and hopefully will just be an issue you deal with for a short period of time. But don't assume every vaginal infection is a yeast infection, as it can be something different or more serious. Discuss your symptoms with your doctor to get a correct diagnosis.

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