Yeast Infections: 101

Get the Facts About Vaginal Yeast Infection Symptoms and Treatment

By Jenilee Matz, MPH

 

Of all the “down there” drama a woman has to endure, vaginal yeast infections (candidiasis) rank high on the scale. And chances are you’ve had to deal with one yourself: Three out of every four women will have at least one yeast infection during their lifetime, and about 45 percent of women will have two or more infections. In fact, yeast infections are one of the most prevalent types of infections that strike women. Yet, despite being so common, yeast infections are still largely misunderstood. Learn more about what causes a vaginal yeast infection, signs you may have one and how to treat it.

 

What are the symptoms of a yeast infection?

Yeast infections are a type of vaginitis or inflammation of the vagina and vulva (the area surrounding the vagina). These infections are rarely a serious health issue, but they can cause bothersome symptoms such as:

  • Vaginal itching
  • Burning or soreness inside or around the vagina
  • Redness and swelling of the vulva
  • Thick, whitish, clumpy vaginal discharge that may resemble cottage cheese
  • Pain when urinating or during sex
  • A rash on the vulva

 

What causes a yeast infection?

Yeast is a type of fungus (called Candida albicans) that’s always present in small amounts in the body. It lives in the mouth, gastrointestinal tract and vagina, usually without causing any symptoms. Bacteria are also present in the vagina (and throughout the body). Acid produced by the bacteria helps keep the yeast from overgrowing. However, many different things can throw off this healthy balance. When an overgrowth of yeast cells occurs, an infection forms.

“Any woman can develop a yeast infection,” says Ingrid Rodi, MD, associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. And sex is rarely the culprit. Most yeast infections are caused by a weakened immune system, she explains. 

Other factors can also throw off the balance of bacteria in the vagina—such as a change in the normal acidity (pH) level of the vagina or hormonal fluctuations—and bring on a yeast infection, including: 

  • Using antibiotics, birth control pills or steroids
  • Menstruation
  • Pregnancy
  • Stress
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Illness
  • Using douches or feminine hygiene sprays
  • Wearing tight, poorly ventilated, synthetic underwear or pants

“Some serious medical conditions put certain women at a higher risk for infection,” adds Rodi. “The most common of these is diabetes.” High sugar levels, such as those associated with diabetes, encourages the yeast to grow.

Though not as common a culprit, bad eating habits, including eating extreme amounts of sugar, can also fuel a yeast infection.

 

Can I get a yeast infection from having sex, or give one to my partner?

Yeast infections are not considered a type of sexually transmitted infection (STI). (This is because yeast infections can happen in women who aren't sexually active and the candida fungus is naturally present in the vagina, along with other places in the body.)

Though it is less common, “it is possible to transmit a yeast infection through sexual contact, whether oral or genital,” cautions Ronald Woodward, MD, an ob-gyn practicing in Glendale, California, with more than 20 years of experience treating patients. In fact, 12 to 15 percent of men get an itchy rash on the tip of their penis after having unprotected sex with an infected partner, and some research shows that lesbians may have a higher risk for infection.

 

If I think I have a yeast infection, what should I do?

If you have symptoms of a yeast infection, call your doctor to make an appointment. Symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection are similar to those of some STIs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea, two types of STIs that can have serious health consequences if left untreated, so getting an accurate diagnosis is key.

If you’ve previously had a yeast infection diagnosed by a doctor and your current symptoms are the same, your doctor may not need to see you in person and may just prescribe a treatment over the phone. Or your doctor may suggest you try treating the infection using an over-the-counter (OTC) antifungal product.

However, if there’s any doubt that you have a yeast infection, check with your doctor. Studies show that two-thirds of women who use OTC treatments don’t really have a yeast infection. Taking the wrong medication can make your existing health condition worse. And you want to be sure you’re treating the true cause of your symptoms.

 

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