If there’s one thing most of us hate to talk about, it’s probably vaginal health. Sure you can dish with your girlfriends about politics, money, and sex, but when it comes to questioning disconcerting or uncomfortable symptoms in your genitals, most women clam right up. It’s not hard to understand why. Talking about yeast infections symptoms, such as burning, itching, or discharge, just sounds unpleasant. Add to that the fact that yeast infection symptoms can be associated with stigmatized conditions like sexually transmitted diseases, and it gives you even more reason to keep quiet. But keeping vaginal health a taboo subject doesn’t do anyone any good. As women we need to be aware of our vaginal health—and how to know when something is amiss. One of the most common vaginal issues is yeast infections, so knowing what to look for when it comes to yeast infection symptoms is very important. About 75 percent of women will have a yeast infection during their lives, according to the Office on Women’s Health (OWH), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About half of women will have more than one. Because yeast infection symptoms are most common during the childbearing years—between puberty and menopause—chances are that you’re in the age group that is most affected. Yeast infection symptoms can be tough to talk about, but knowing what to look for can help keep your entire system in optimal health. Here’s everything you need to know about yeast infection symptoms, including how to treat the infection and when it’s time to get professional medical help.
What are yeast infections?
Yeast infections occur when the body has too much of a fungus called candida, according to the OWH. This species of fungus is naturally found in the gut and genitals of most healthy people, but its growth is kept in check by bacteria and the natural acidity of the body. If either of those fall out of balance, however, candida can thrive, which leads to infection. When we think about yeast infections, we most commonly think of vaginal yeast infections. Although these are the most common types of yeast infections, there are other types to be aware of. Men can experience yeast infections on their genitals as well. Yeast infection symptoms in men include itching in the genitals. Infants also commonly experience yeast infection in their mouths, a condition that is known as thrush. With thrush, yeast infection symptoms manifest as small white dots and soreness in the infant’s mouth. Breastfeeding mothers can also experience thrush on their nipples, which is characterized by a burning sensation, especially when nursing. “The pain is usually ongoing and doesn’t go away with improved positioning or attachment of the baby or in between feeds,” says Hannah Braye, a nutritional therapist and technical advisor at Protexin. Yeast infections can also take root in the gut, on the skin, or in the mouths of adults, particularly older adults who use dentures. If you have a yeast infection in one area, you might want to keep a closer eye on other areas of your body, looking out for yeast infection symptoms. “Oral and genital yeast infections are also a common indication that there may be yeast overgrowth in the gut,” Braye says. Vaginal yeast infections occur when there is too much yeast in the vagina. This causes yeast infection symptoms, including an itching and burning sensation on the vulva, the exterior area around the vagina. The infection can also cause excess discharge. Since vaginal yeast infections are most common and most concerning to many women, that’s what we’ll focus on. When we mention yeast infections, we’re referring to vaginal yeast infections from this point forward.
Why do I get yeast infections?
As we mentioned above, yeast infections are caused by an overgrowth of naturally occuring bacteria. But what allows that to happen? Fungal growth in the body is kept in check by beneficial bacteria and environmental conditions. If either of those change, there can be a surge in fungus, like candida. One way this can happen is through use of antibiotics, which wipe out infection but also can deplete good bacteria that keep fungus like candida in check. If you’re on antibiotics, be sure to keep an eye out for yeast infection symptoms. But antibiotics are just one of a host of reasons that your body’s natural system can be thrown out of whack. “Levels of beneficial bacteria and the immune system can become depressed by a number of factors, including prolonged antibiotic use (the biggest risk factor), nutrient deficiencies from a poor diet, impaired liver function, decreased digestive secretions, smoking, alcohol, hidden food intolerances, oral contraceptives, and other medications and stress,” Braye says. In short, there are many reasons that you can naturally develop a yeast infection. However, it’s important to remember that yeast infections can also be passed through sex (although they’re not considered a sexually transmitted infection because there are other ways to get them). According to the OWH, about 15 percent of men will get a yeast infection if they have unprotected sex with a woman who has an infection. Between female partners the transmission rate is higher. If your partner has been diagnosed, be sure to keep a close lookout for yeast infection symptoms in yourself.
What are the symptoms of yeast infections?
Most often, yeast infection symptoms include burning, itching, and a cottage cheese–looking vaginal discharge, according to Mary Jane Minkin, an OB-GYN at Yale New Haven Hospital. Although the discharge is distinctive looking, it should not smell bad. Women might also experience pain while urinating or having sex and burning during intercourse. Yeast infection symptoms can mirror the symptoms of many other conditions, so it can be tough to know whether you truly have a yeast infection, Minkin says. “Women often think they have a yeast infection when they really have another type of vaginitis (vaginal infection),” says Minkin. “Also, women may have topical irritation from a bubble bath, soap, or laundry detergent which will present just like a yeast infection.” If you think you have yeast infection symptoms, you can try using an over-the-counter cream to treat the infection, Minkin says. If it doesn’t improve fairly quickly, you’re probably dealing with another condition that is mirroring yeast infection symptoms. For the fastest and most definitive answer to whether you have a yeast infection, visit your healthcare provider. In addition to looking at your vagina and vulva, a healthcare professional can take a swab of the area and examine the fungus under a microscope to determine whether it is in fact candida.
Yeast Infections During Pregnancy
Experiencing yeast infection symptoms during pregnancy can be frightening, especially as you’re navigating all the changes that pregnancy brings and worrying about the health of your unborn baby. Frustratingly, yeast infections are fairly common among pregnant women. “Vaginal yeast infections are especially common during pregnancy because hormone changes can disrupt the pH balance of the vagina,” Braye says. In most cases, having a yeast infection while pregnant will have no effect on your baby. However, as a precaution, it’s important to get treatment as soon as you begin seeing yeast infection symptoms, especially if you are close to delivery. “If the infection is left untreated until the time of birth, there is an increased chance of the infant picking up the infection as it passes through the birth canal. This most commonly manifests in the infant as a yeast infection in the mouth or skin,” Braye says. Minkin says it is perfectly okay to use an over-the-counter product like Monistat to treat yeast infection symptoms while pregnant. Vaginal creams or suppositories that contain miconazole or clotrimazole are safe during pregnancy, but you should not use the oral fluconazole tablet to treat a yeast infection during pregnancy, since it has been linked to birth defects.
What are recurring yeast infections?
If you’re experiencing yeast infection symptoms regularly, it’s time to talk to your healthcare provider to identify factors that could be the underlying cause. “If women keep on getting yeast infections, I would encourage them to check in with their healthcare provider, because women can have recurrent yeast infections from diabetes or even HIV infections,” Minkin says. “So with recurrent infections, do check it out.” There are a number of factors that can contribute to reoccuring yeast infections. According to the OWH, women who have diabetes, HIV or other immunocompromising diseases, or who are pregnant or taking hormonal birth control are more at risk. Taking antibiotics frequently can also increase your risk. If you’re experiencing yeast infection symptoms regularly, work with your doctor to evaluate why that might be the case. “Reoccuring yeast infections typically occur when the root causes of the problem (including poor diet, bacterial imbalances, and lifestyle factors) aren’t addressed,” Braye says. “While medications can reduce levels of yeast in the short term, if the underlying causes persist, the yeast is likely to regrow, as the body’s defenses are still compromised. Addressing the underlying drivers of infections by making dietary changes, rectifying nutrient deficiencies, rebalancing the gut and genital microflora, and reducing stress levels etc. is therefore necessary for long-term resolution.”
Preventing Yeast Infections
Yeast thrives in warm, moist environments and feeds on sugar. Typically the candida fungus is kept in check because of vaginal acidity and the presence of bacteria. With these things in mind, there are certain steps you can take to prevent yeast infections and keep those unpleasant yeast infection symptoms from ruining your day, according to the OWH. First, don’t douche. Doing so can disrupt the natural balance of your vagina, eliminating good bacteria and making the environment more alkaline instead of acidic. All of that can allow candida to flourish. In addition, avoid using scented products around your vagina and vulva, including bubble baths, sprays, and scented tampons or pads. Reducing moisture can also help prevent yeast infections. Although the genitals are naturally moist, you should take care to change pads and tampons regularly, remove wet swimsuits quickly, and wear cotton underwear, all of which will help to increase airflow and reduce moisture.
Dietary Changes to Prevent Yeast Infections
What you eat can have an impact on how often you are seeing yeast infection symptoms. Since yeast thrives on sugar, people who eat lots of sugary foods or who have blood sugar that is not well controlled may experience yeast infection symptoms more regularly. “Yeast love sugar, so make your yeast mad, and don’t give it to them,” Minkin says. Yogurt, which contains healthy bacteria and other live cultures, is commonly thought to be beneficial for preventing yeast infection symptoms. Research has shown that women who regularly consume yogurt have less fungal growth in and around their vaginas. Specifically, women who eat yogurt containing Lactobacillus acidophilus bacteria are up to three times less likely to experience yeast infections.
Medical Preventions and Treatments for Yeast Infections
If you have tried natural ways to prevent yeast infections but are still experiencing uncomfortable symptoms, it’s important to treat your infection. Some yeast infections will clear up on their own. But if your symptoms have stuck around for a while, you probably need to treat them, since a yeast infection can spread to other areas of the body The most common treatment for yeast infections is over-the-counter fungal creams. These are applied topically to the affected area and help to normalize the growth of candida fungus. In addition to creams, there are also antifungal vaginal suppositories available without a prescription. Treatment with these options typically lasts about a week. Doctors can also prescribe an oral dose of fluconazole or other antifungal medications. Generally this option is given when over-the-counter treatments do not work or when a woman is experiencing recurrent yeast infections. If you regularly experience yeast infection symptoms, your doctor may want you to take oral antifungal medications for up to six months. It’s important to remember, though, that oral antifungal medications are not generally safe to take during pregnancy. Having a yeast infection certainly isn’t pleasant, but it’s a common experience and nothing to be embarrassed about. Most importantly, remember that it’s best to treat yeast infection symptoms as soon as you see them.