Three out of four women suffer from a vaginal yeast infection, or vaginal candidiasis, at least once in their lives. Yeast infections make your vagina and vulva itch. You may also experience discharge.
Over 20 forms of yeast (candida) inhabit your gastrointestinal tract, skin, mucus membranes, and other body parts including your vagina. The good bacteria in your body feed on them, so they’re normally harmless. But if something upsets your internal balance, they can grow out of control. Excessive yeast growth leads to infection. While vaginal candida is the most common, yeast infections can also affect your mouth, skin, and even get into your bloodstream.
The symptoms of vaginal yeast infection are unpleasant, uncomfortable, and distressing. Knowing how to recognize them is important so you can make the right diagnosis and get treatment. Many women self-diagnose vaginal yeast infections and treat them with over-the-counter medicines. In more severe cases, you may need to see your doctor.
The most common symptom of vaginal yeast infection is itching around the vagina. Other symptoms include burning sensations, swelling, soreness, and discharge. A vaginal discharge caused by candida is often a thick, white substance that looks like sour cream or cottage cheese.
If a vaginal yeast infection is untreated it can get worse and even spread to other parts of your body. Yeast infections in your mouth cause soreness and a white coating on your tongue. Red, dry, flaky skin may also be a secondary symptom of yeast infection.
Broad-spectrum antibiotics prescribed to treat another infection may also destroy the healthy bacteria which keep candida in check, leading to excessive yeast growth and infection. Often, steroid treatments given for other conditions do the same. Vaginal douches and sprays may change the acidity balance, also harming bacteria and encouraging yeast growth.
When pregnant, alterations in progesterone and estrogen levels can lead to yeast infections. Likewise, when breastfeeding. Hormone replacement therapy can have a similar effect. Certain forms of birth control that change estrogen levels may also cause a vaginal yeast infection.
Tight clothes that retain heat and sweat, creating the warm, damp conditions ideal for yeast growth, can encourage infections. Loose, cotton panties are safer. Always change out of gym clothes and swimwear as soon as you can and wash and dry yourself well.
If you suffer from diabetes and your condition isn’t treated, increased sugar in your vagina’s mucus membranes can cause a yeast infection, as yeast feed on sugars. Women who have HIV may be less able to fight off minor infections and so have a higher risk of a yeast infection getting hold. Likewise, women with cancer, organ transplant patients, and women who’ve had a blood transfusion, may be at greater risk of secondary infections, including vaginal yeast infection.
Several women choose to self-diagnose and buy treatments from the drugstore. Most times that works fine. However, if you’re unsure, or your symptoms don’t improve, see a doctor.
The doctor will listen to you and note the symptoms you describe. She may wish to examine your vagina. A vaginal smear test may help find the form of yeast responsible for the infection.
After diagnosis, your doctor may prescribe an antifungal cream or suppository. A suppository is a small preparation which you insert into your vagina where it dissolves, releasing the medicine. Suppositories may cause mild side-effects. In severe or persistent cases, your doctor may prescribe other forms of treatment such as an oral medication to take over several weeks.
If you self-diagnose but the over-the-counter treatment doesn’t work, always see your doctor, as you may have gotten the diagnosis wrong or have other complications. You should always go to the doctor if you suspect you have a yeast infection while pregnant, breastfeeding, or receiving medical care for another condition such as cancer, HIV, or diabetes. If you have self-treated in the past but continue to have several yeast infections a year, see a qualified medical practitioner.
Vaginal yeast infections are common in women of all ages. A yeast infection is often uncomfortable and may even be painful. It can have a negative psychological and emotional impact, too, causing distress and interfering with sex and relationships. But once diagnosed, effective treatment is always possible. If in any doubt, don’t suffer in silence; see your doctor.
You are encouraged to make an appointment with your Primary Care Provider or OBGYN if you are bothered by any of the common symptoms above. You know your own body. Together with their medical knowledge, you can get the correct diagnosis and advice for the most effective management of your unique circumstances. The right doctor will be a partner in decision making and will make you feel heard, respected, and in control of your health.