If you’ve ever had a yeast infection, we feel your pain - because yeast infections are rough, and that’s us being nice about it. Not only does it involve an itchy vaginal area, which can make for some seriously awkward moments, but unlike cramps and PMS, a yeast infection also won’t just go away on its own. Instead, you have to be proactive in treating yeast infections. In this case, the sooner the better, in part because it means the symptoms will stop that much sooner. And that counts for a lot - for if there’s anything that can drive every single person up the wall, it’s an itchy vaginal area. Here’s everything you need to know about vaginal yeast infections.
What Is A Yeast Infection?
A yeast infection, which is also known as vulvovaginal candidiasis, is a fungal infection in the vagina caused by an overgrowth of a vaginal yeast called candida. Don’t worry - it sounds way worse than it actually is. Candida actually grows naturally in the vagina and bowel, where it lives peacefully alongside and is kept in check by other harmless fungi and bacteria. But if something throws their balance out of whack, the vaginal yeast can grow too much and cause an infection.
You’re at the greatest risk of getting a yeast infection right before your period starts. And although it’s not a sexually transmitted infection, you might be at higher risk of a vaginal yeast infection when you first begin engaging in sexual activities on a regular basis. Also, some evidence shows that oral-to-genital contact, like some forms of oral sex, can also increase your risk 1. We’re not saying you should change your habits based on that, but it’s still worth keeping in mind if you’ve gotten vaginal yeast infections in the past. 1https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/yeast-infection/symptoms-causes/syc-20378999
What Are the Signs & Symptoms of a Yeast Infection?
The one good thing about yeast infections is that they don’t just lay low and wreak havoc without you realizing it. If you have one, you’ll definitely know - because yeast infection symptoms aren’t the kind that you can just ignore. They can affect both the vagina and the vulva, which are the tissues at the vaginal opening.
- Thick, white vaginal discharge that looks like cottage cheese
- Irritation and itchiness around the vagina and vulva
- Burning or discomfort when urinating or during intercourse
- A red or swollen vulva
- Vaginal soreness, pain, or a rash
- Vaginal inflammation
If this is the first time you’ve ever had yeast infection symptoms - or you aren’t sure whether you have a yeast infection or something else - head to your doctor for medical advice before trying to treat it yourself. The same goes if you develop any other symptoms besides the above.
How Do You Get a Yeast Infection?
Vaginal yeast infections can happen to any of us, including those of us who aren’t necessarily at a high risk for them. (Chalk it up to bad luck.) However, your chances of getting vaginal yeast infections do go up with a few other factors added in, such as:
Compromised immune system
Those who have an impaired or weakened immune system, be it from a corticosteroid therapy for another health condition or another infection, are more likely to get yeast infections - since your body’s immune system can’t as easily smack down the candida yeast.
Antibiotics have one job, and that’s to kill off bacteria. But they’re not exactly accurate, meaning they kill healthy bacteria as well as the bad stuff. By disrupting the balance within your vagina, it could leave an opportunity for vaginal yeast to take over.
Shifting hormone levels
Vaginal yeast infections occur more often in people who have fluctuations in their hormones for whatever reason - they may be pregnant, about to get their period taking birth control pills with a high-dose of estrogen or doing estrogen hormone therapy. In addition to their usual effects, these wild swings in hormones can also mess with the bacteria in your vagina, too, which in turn ups your risk of a vaginal yeast infection. (However, don’t jump to the conclusion that any weird discharge leading up to your period is a yeast infection. Keep an eye out for other symptoms, like redness, itchiness, and a burning sensation, too.)
If your blood sugar is left uncontrolled, it can increase your chances of a yeast infection. Here’s why: Vaginal yeast like to feed on sugar, so high blood sugar is like giving that yeast an all-you-can-eat buffet. Properly managing your blood sugar, on the other hand, will keep your risk at a minimum.
How to Prevent and Treat Yeast Infections
Time for some good news: It’s pretty easy to treat yeast infections. You can get over-the-counter treatments at your local drugstore - no doctor required - or ask your doctor about a one-dose medication to treat it. The most common treatment for yeast infections (also called a thrush treatment) can come as either an oral antifungal drug, which is in the form of a pill, or an antifungal cream, which you insert into your vagina. Whichever one you go with, the course of treatment should only last one to three days. (FYI: If you have your period, avoid using a tampon at the same time as an antifungal cream, as the tampon could remove some of the medication - which defeats the purpose.) If your symptoms are severe or you tend to get yeast infections all the time, your doctor might prescribe you a long-course antifungal cream, which you use daily for two weeks and then weekly for six months, or an oral antifungal drug, which is just two or three doses you take in the form of a pill.
If you’ve never had a yeast infection before or your over-the-counter treatment doesn’t improve your symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor. Also, a heads up: While you can find a million and one natural remedies out there, such as coconut oil, garlic, and even tea tree cream, you should definitely talk to your doctor before trying anything of the sort. The same goes for essential oils, which can be super-irritating to some skin types, especially if they’re not diluted correctly. They aren’t nearly as effective or reliable as the standard, doc-approved treatments for yeast infections, if at all - and if you don’t actually have a yeast infection, then they definitely won’t help.
In the meantime, you can prevent yeast infections in a few ways:
- If you have vaginal discharge (like a yeast infection discharge) that’s not related to your period, don’t use a tampon to absorb it. A pantyliner is your best bet.
- Wear cotton underwear, which helps with air circulation and can help keep vaginal yeast from over-growing.
- Stay away from scented soaps and bath salts, as they could irritate the sensitive vaginal tissue.
- Don’t use vaginal washes or douches, since they’re not supposed to be used when you have an infection. (Your vagina can clean itself, thank you very much.)
- Change out of wet or sweaty clothes once you’re done swimming or working out, since moisture can aid yeast growth. Thanks, but no thanks.
In a perfect world, you just won’t get a vaginal yeast infection. But if it does happen, you’ll know exactly what to do. Preparation for the win.