What is a Vaginal Yeast Infection?

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A vaginal yeast infection, also known as vaginal candidiasis or vulvovaginal candidiasis, is a common medical condition caused by a naturally occuring fungi called Candida albicans. They typically are easy to diagnose based on symptoms—notably vaginal itching, a thick white discharge, and painful urination—but it's important to see a doctor even if you feel certain you have a yeast infection as several more serious conditions cause similar symptoms. As many as 72% of women have at least one vaginal yeast infection during their lifetime.

Yeast infections are treated with over-the-counter (OTC) topical antifungal products or prescription oral medication. They also can be prevented with simple lifestyle measures.

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

Yeast Infection Symptoms

The symptoms of a yeast infection are practically unmistakable, especially if you've had one (or more). In that case, you're likely familiar with these common tell-tale signs:

  • Vaginal itching, burning, and irritation
  • Painful or frequent urination
  • Redness or a rash on the vulva (the external tissue surrounding the vagina)
  • Swelling of the vulva
  •  Vaginal discharge that is thicker than normal or white and curd-like (almost like cottage cheese) 
  • Painful sex  

Of all of these symptoms of candidiasis, painful and/or frequent urination is one of the most aggravating. It occurs when the opening of the urethra (the tube through which urine passes from the bladder out of the body) becomes inflamed, leading to a burning sensation upon urination. Similarly, a yeast infection may cause painful sexual intercourse as a result of inflammation and drying of the vagina.

Causes

Candida albicans normally lives in the human mouth, vagina, and intestinal tract. It is a standard part of the human microbial flora and only becomes problematic if allowed to proliferate, which can occur under a number of conditions.

Potential causes of a yeast infection due to increased growth of Candida include:

  • Antibiotic use: In the course of destroying disease-causing pathogens, antibiotics also can kill off beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome that prevent fungi from proliferating.
  • Pregnancy: The increase in estrogen that occurs during pregnancy boosts susceptibility to yeast infections, particularly during the second trimester.
  • Menstruation: Some women also are more prone to yeast infections during their periods, again because of the increase of estrogen that occurs during this time. The recurrence of monthly infections is known as cyclic vulvovaginitis.
  •  Contraceptive use: Low-dose birth control pills in particular have been associated with a higher incidence of yeast infections, but diaphragms, vaginal sponges, and intrauterine devices (IUDs) that contain estrogen have been implicated as well.
  • Diabetes: Yeast feed on glucose and so the high levels of blood sugar that occur in people with diabetes can encourage their growth.
  • Weakened immune system: Chemotherapy, steroids, infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and other treatments, medications, and conditions that weaken the immune system can inhibit the body's natural defense against fungal overgrowth.

Despite a long-held notion that yeast infections can occur after spending time in a swimming pool or hot tub, there's no scientific evidence that this is the case. There is research to suggest, however, that stress may exacerbate the risk of yeast infections.

Diagnosis

If you have symptoms you suspect may be caused by a vaginal yeast infection, see your gynecologist for an official diagnosis—even if you've had previous yeast infections. They will take a medical history and do a pelvic exam to look for the tell-tale swelling, redness, and cottage cheese-like discharge that indicate a proliferation of Candida.

Your doctor may also take a sample of vaginal fluid (via a simple, painless swipe with a cotton swab) to be examined under a microscope in a lab to confirm the presence of Candida.

At-home tests for yeast infections measure vaginal pH in order to discern between a yeast infection or another condition such as bacterial vaginosis, but are not reliable. Only a doctor can make a definitive diagnosis of either condition.

Differential Diagnosis

There are a number of vaginal conditions that have symptoms similar to those of a yeast infection. Of particular note are:

Bacterial vaginosis is especially easy to confuse with vaginal yeast infections but is arguably a more serious condition, because untreated it can result in pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.It's important, therefore, to be aware with the primary differences between the two.

Yeast Infection
  • Discharge: thick, white

  • Odor: none

  • Cause: proliferation of Candida yeast

  • Sexual side effects: vaginal itching and pain can make intercourse uncomfortable

Bacterial Vaginosis
  • Discharge: thin, watery, grayish or yellow

  • Odor: foul smelling, fishy

  • Cause: froliferation of bacteria

  • Sexual side effects: discomfort during intercourse, bleeding afterwards

Treatment

Once it's determined you have a vaginal yeast infection, there are several effective treatment options.

  • Non-prescription creams, ointments, and vaginal suppositories: Available at drugstores and other stores that sell pharmaceutical products, OTC yeast infection medications typically work in one to seven days. Options include: Monistat (miconazole), Femstat (butoconazole), Gyne-Lotrimin (clotrimazole), and Mycostatin (nystatin).
  • Diflucan (fluconazole): An oral prescription medication that typically requires only one dose to work, although women with persistent symptoms may need several doses taken a few days apart, followed by weekly doses for six months. Note that fluconazole has been linked to certain types of birth defects and should not be taken during pregnancy .
  • Essential oil suppositories: There is some evidence that lavender may have the potential to help reduce vaginal yeast. The same is true of tea tree oil, especially when used in conjunction with fluconazole. When used as suppositories, these oils may provoke irritation or an allergic reaction and should be used under a doctor's direction.

Even if you feel absolutely positive you have a yeast infection, it's best not to use an OTC treatment until you've been diagnosed: As many as two out of three women who self-treat for a suspected yeast infection actually do not have one.

In addition to medication, it's important to keep your genital area clean and dry: Change into fresh underwear daily and after vigorous activity. If you can bear it, avoid having sex until your infection has cleared up: Not only might intercourse or other contact exacerbate your symptoms, you may share your yeast infection with your partner. At the very least, use a condom or dental dam. Partners of any sex are at risk; in fact, around 15% of men develop penile yeast infections after having sex with someone who has one.

Prevention

As common as they are, yeast infections aren't inevitable. Among the measures you can take to help prevent the Candida that lives peacefully on your body from increasing to the point of infection are:

  • Don't douche, as this can alter the natural vaginal flora that help prevent infections.
  • Don't use scented bath products.
  • Wear loose clothing and underwear with a cotton crotch. Although the common myth that tight-fitting and/or synthetic clothing may play a role in yeast infections has largely been debunked, you may still find you're more comfortable by giving your lower body the chance toSobel JD. Patient education: Vaginal yeast infection (beyond the basics). UpToDate, Inc. Updated February 7, 2019.
  • Change tampons, pads, and panty liners often. There's no evidence menstrual products are linked to yeast infections, but freshening up frequently during your period can't hurt and may also prevent other potential problems.
  • Use a lubricant during sexual intercourse to prevent irritation.
  • Try boric acid suppositories which can be effective against less common strains of yeast that are resistant to the usual treatment.
  • Drink cranberry juice. Although long touted as a natural way to prevent yeast infections, there's scant clinical evidence it works. However, a 2018 study found cranberry juice effectively eliminated Candida albicans in artificial urine, and so including it in your diet can't hurt.

While once recommended for preventing yeast infections, there's research to suggest eating yogurt may actually defeat the purpose, as the sugar in yogurt may provide yeast an opportunity to grow.

A Word From Verywell

If, after your best efforts to avoid a yeast infection you still develop one, don't be alarmed. Most are easy to treat and clear up quickly. Even if you get recurrent infections you and your doctor can work together to find effective prevention strategies and treatments. But don't assume every vaginal infection is a yeast infection, as the burning, itching, and pain that often accompany yeast infections could also be symptoms of something else. You won't know for sure until you see your doctor.

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