What Is a Yeast Infection?

Yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of fungus. Vaginal yeast infections are typically caused by a type called Candida albicans. This yeast is commonly found in the mucous membranes lining the genitals but typically only causes problems when the healthy balance of microorganisms in the membranes is disrupted, causing too much yeast to grow.

The overgrowth of yeast causes inflammation, which can lead to uncomfortable symptoms such as itching, burning, or abnormal discharge. Vaginal yeast infections are the most common type, but yeast infections can occur in other places, such as the mouth and penis.

This article will discuss the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of yeast infections.

A healthcare provider talks to a woman in an exam room

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What Causes a Vaginal Yeast Infection?

A vaginal yeast infection is caused by an overgrowth of yeast (usually Candida albicans) in and around the vagina or vulva. Changes to the balance of microorganisms in the genital mucous membranes prompt overgrowth.

Factors that can lead to imbalance and overgrowth include:

  • A weakened immune system
  • Pregnancy
  • Certain medications (such as antibiotics, steroids, hormone therapy, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy)
  • Hormone changes
  • Diabetes, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and other conditions that can affect the immune system
  • Stress
  • Sweating (yeast thrives in warm, humid conditions)
  • Synthetic and tight clothes that don't allow the skin to "breathe"
  • Washing genitals with soap
  • "Non-breathable" sanitary pads or panty liners

Non-Vaginal Types of Yeast Infections

Yeast infections can happen in other areas of the body, including:

  • Penis: Redness, scaling, and painful rash on the underside of the penis
  • Skinfolds or navel: Rash with redness and skin breakdown, itching or burning, patches that ooze clear fluid, pimples
  • Mouth (thrush): White patches on the tongue/inside of the cheeks, redness or soreness, difficulty swallowing if there is yeast in the esophagus
  • Corners of the mouth (angular cheilitis): Cracks and/or tiny cuts
  • Nail beds: Pain, swelling, pus, white or yellow nail that separates from the nail bed
  • Nipples: Called thrush; usually happens while breastfeeding; sore, flaky, shiny, itchy, deep pink, blistered, and/or cracked nipples, achy breast, shooting pain in the breast during or after feedings

Is a Yeast Infection a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI)?

Yeast infections aren't considered STIs, but they can be passed to a partner through vaginal, oral, or anal sex.

Your body chemistry can also react to your partner's genital yeast and bacteria during sexual activity, which may lead to a yeast overgrowth.

Friction can cause irritation that hinders healing. Some of the medications used to treat yeast infections can have oil in them, which can cause condoms to break.

Avoid having sex until your (or your partner's) yeast infection has completely healed. Also, avoid putting anything in your vagina until your treatment is fully finished.

Yeast Infection Symptoms

Vaginal yeast infections can cause symptoms such as:

  • Itching, burning sensation, and pain in or around the vagina
  • Redness and a whitish coating on the membranes that line the vagina
  • Red and swollen labia
  • Whitish-yellowish vaginal discharge that doesn't usually have a strong odor (may be watery or "chunky" like curdled milk or cottage cheese)
  • Pain during sex or when urinating (peeing)
  • Symptoms that may get worse a few days before menstruation starts
  • Small tears or sores on the vagina or vulva (in extreme cases)

Diagnosing Yeast Infections: How Do You Know You Have One?

To diagnose a yeast infection, your healthcare provider may:

  • Discuss your symptoms and medical history with you
  • Give you a physical exam, that may include looking inside the vagina
  • Take a sample of vaginal discharge, scrape off a bit of skin, or remove part of a nail, depending on the location of the infection, to examine it for yeast
  • Order more tests if there are repeated or severe infections to look for a cause, such as a weakened immune system
  • Test sexual partner(s) if yeast infections are recurrent

Treating a Yeast Infection at Home

Vaginal yeast infections can usually be treated at home with over-the-counter (OTC) antifungal medications. These come in the form of medicated creams or suppositories, placed in the vagina with an applicator.

The duration of treatment varies, but it usually takes one to six days. Follow all the directions for the product, and use all of the recommended medication, even if your symptoms have improved.

Some medications that can be used for at-home treatment of vaginal yeast infections include:

  • Monistat-Derm (miconazole)
  • Lotrimin/Mycelex/Clotrim (clotrimazole)
  • Vagistat-1/Monistat 1 (tioconazole)
  • Gynazole-1/Femstat 3 (butoconazole)

Even if you are using nonprescription medication, talk to a healthcare provider before treating yourself for a yeast infection because:

  • You may have a different condition, such as a bacterial infection or a STI, that requires different treatment and could cause serious problems if not properly treated.
  • You may be using antifungal medication too often and when you don't need it can lead to resistance to the yeast infection medication.
  • Some medications used for yeast infections can break down and weaken condoms and diaphragms (talk to a healthcare provider about your needs).

Who Should Not Use OTC Medication for Yeast Infections?

People who are pregnant and people under age 12 years should not use OTC yeast infection treatments without first consulting a healthcare provider.

Can a Yeast Infection Go Away Without Treatment?

Mild vaginal yeast infections can clear up on their own, but it's common for symptoms to get worse without treatment. Yeast infections in other areas of the body often require treatment to go away.

Medical Treatment for Yeast Infections

Depending on the location and severity of the yeast infection, prescription treatment may be necessary.

Oral medication, such as Diflucan (fluconazole), may be prescribed by a healthcare provider.

Treatments for yeast infections by area include:

  • Vagina or penis: Creams, suppositories, or sometimes oral antifungal medication
  • Mouth: Medicated mouthwash or lozenges
  • Esophagus: Oral or intravenous antifungal medications
  • Nails: Oral antifungal medications
  • Skinfolds: Antifungal powders

Risks of Untreated Yeast Infections 

Vaginal yeast infections rarely cause serious complications. Having a weakened immune system, such as during cancer treatment or having a condition like HIV, can make complications more likely.

Scratching the vagina or vulva can spread inflammation to nearby tissues, such as the urethra opening (where the urine exits when you urinate). It can also make the area vulnerable to infection from other germs.

Vaginal infections during pregnancy may somewhat increase risks such as premature labor, miscarriage, or premature birth. Yeast infections could also be passed from parent to baby during birth, which could lead to diaper rash or a yeast infection in the baby's mouth.

Yeast Infections in Older Adults

Vaginal yeast infections typically occur during childbearing age years, rarely before puberty or after menopause.

People over age 65 years old may be more at risk for invasive (systemic) candidiasis and fungal infections. Older adults produce less saliva, often wear prosthetic dental devices, may be taking medications that affect the environment of the mouth, or may have medical conditions that affect their oral health. This can make oral yeast infections more likely. Once there is an oral yeast colonization, it can spread to the respiratory system.

Yeast infections may also be introduced into the bloodstream through indwelling (left in place) catheters which may be used by older adults in hospitals or care homes.

Some research shows that Alzheimer's disease is more common in people who have infections, including bacterial, viral, and fungal infections. It's not known if these infections can trigger or worsen Alzheimer's disease, or if people with Alzheimer's disease are more likely to pick up infections. Older adults are more susceptible to both Alzheimer's disease and infections.

When to Call a Healthcare Provider for a Yeast Infection

Signs and symptoms of yeast infections can be similar to other, more serious infections. It's best to see a healthcare provider for any symptoms of a genital infection to make sure you get a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment, reducing the risk of developing complications.

See a healthcare provider if:

  • This is your first time experiencing symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection.
  • You aren't sure if what you have is a yeast infection.
  • OTC medication doesn't get rid of your symptoms.
  • Your symptoms get worse.
  • Other symptoms develop.
  • You may have been exposed to an STI.
  • You have signs of a secondary bacterial infection, such as warm, reddened skin, drainage, swelling, or pain.

How Long Does It Take to Heal From a Yeast Infection?

Typically, medication is taken for one to seven days. Follow the directions that come with the product you use or your healthcare provider's instructions. In some cases, longer treatment may be needed if directed by your healthcare provider.

With medication, symptoms typically improve in a few days, but it can take about a week to cure the infection. It's important to finish your entire course of treatment, even if you feel better, to prevent the infection from coming back.

If you are still experiencing symptoms within a few days of finishing your treatment, see a healthcare provider.

How to Prevent Future Yeast Infections

You can help prevent vaginal yeast infections by:

  • Using unscented menstrual products
  • Avoiding using bubble baths, douches, fragrances, powders, and sprays in the genital area
  • Changing pads, tampons, and panty liners frequently
  • Avoiding tight underwear, pantyhose, jeans, shorts, and pants
  • Wearing "breathable" underwear and pantyhose with a cotton crotch area
  • Avoiding hot tubs and very hot baths
  • Changing out of wet swimsuits and sweaty clothes promptly
  • Wiping from front to back when using the toilet
  • Managing your blood sugar if you have diabetes
  • Cleaning your genital area with water only
  • Using condoms and dental dams for vaginal, oral, and anal sex

To reduce your risk of developing a yeast infection in other areas:

  • Floss, brush, use mouthwash, and practice good oral hygiene.
  • Keep skin dry and try to reduce friction in areas where skin tends to rub against skin.
  • Clean properly under your foreskin (if you have an uncircumcised penis), and keep it clean and dry.


Vaginal yeast infections usually go away completely with proper treatment and rarely cause major problems.

Symptoms of vaginal yeast infections are rarely severe, but sometimes yeast infections need more intensive treatment, particularly if they happen several times a year or if the person has a weakened immune system.

9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Johns Hopkins. Yeast infection.

  3. Office on Women's Health. Vaginal yeast infections.

  4. Planned Parenthood. What is a yeast infection?

  5. Mount Sinai. Vaginal yeast infection.

  6. Nemours TeensHealth. Vaginal yeast infections.

  7. HealthLinkBC. Vaginal yeast infections.

  8. Flevari A, Theodorakopoulou M, Velegraki A, Armaganidis A, Dimopoulos G. Treatment of invasive candidiasis in the elderly: a review. Clin Interv Aging. 2013;8:1199-208. doi:10.2147/CIA.S39120

  9. Alzheimer's Society. Infections and dementia.

By Heather Jones
Heather M. Jones is a freelance writer with a strong focus on health, parenting, disability, and feminism.