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What Is a Yeast Infection? Signs, Treatment and Frequently Asked Questions

A vaginal yeast infection is a fungal infection that causes irritation, unusual discharge, and intense itching in the vagina and vulva.
If you have a vagina, chances are you’ll get a yeast infection at some point in your life. Learn how to recognize and treat this condition.

There are some symptoms that typically accompany yeast infections. We’ve got answers to your questions about them.

Vaginal yeast infection usually causes intense irritation and itching in the vulva and vagina. 

Some other signs and symptoms of vaginal yeast infection include: 

  • A burning sensation, particularly while urinating or during intercourse
  • Swelling and redness of the vulva
  • Vaginal rash
  • Pain and soreness in the vagina
  • A thick, odorless, white vaginal discharge that has a cottage cheese-like appearance 

While the symptom of vulvovaginal itching can occur at any time, it may seem more noticeable at night because there are fewer distractions, which may make you more aware of the itching. Lying still while you’re trying to sleep can lead to an increased awareness of your bodily sensations.

Vaginal yeast infections generally cause an odor-free vaginal discharge that’s thick, white, and looks similar to cottage cheese. Bacterial vaginosis is among the most common vaginal infections that cause an odor. Some other common causes of vaginal odor are trichomoniasis, poor hygiene, and leaving a tampon in for several days.

Candidiasis doesn’t always cause severe symptoms. In 20 percent of cases, the characteristic clumpy discharge and itching are absent. Yeast infection may be asymptomatic.

A smear test can be used to detect the condition.

Yeast infection can sometimes have mild symptoms (for example, irritation of the vulva).

An asymptomatic yeast infection lowers your immunity and can pose a risk of complications or transmitting the infection to the baby in the event of pregnancy.

Regular gynecological examinations can help identify asymptomatic yeast infections.

Yeast infection is caused by an overgrowth of a fungus that belongs to the genus Candida. According to statistics, 75 percent of females experience it at least once in a lifetime.

Vulvovaginal candidosis results from an overgrowth of Candida albicans 90 percent of the time (there are also other species such as Candida glabrata).

There are a few factors that are associated with yeast infection:

  • Antibiotics
  • Pregnancy
  • Immunosuppression (including diabetes mellitus and immunosuppressive medications)
  • Allergic or inflammatory response to the yeast

Normally, the fungi that cause yeast infection live in the body without causing any problems. But changes in vaginal pH can promote fungal growth and cause disease symptoms.

It’s important to note that a yeast infection is not an STI. They can be triggered by low immune function, antibiotic intake, pregnancy, and diabetes, to name just a few causes.

Getting a yeast infection is sometimes a side effect of taking antibiotics.

Antibiotics kill not only pathogenic bacteria, but also beneficial microorganisms. This creates favorable conditions for the growth of the fungi that cause yeast infections.

To prevent a yeast infection during or after antibiotic treatment, many health care providers recommend taking probiotics. These little organisms can be found in fermented food (yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir, sour cream) and in pill form.

Probiotics can have a beneficial effect on candidiasis and help balance the flora in the body, including in the vagina. This, in turn, prevents pathogenic microflora from reproducing. Although not all studies found clear evidence for probiotics in the treatment of candidal vaginitis.

Probiotics can also positively affect digestion, produce vitamins (including vitamin K and folic acid), normalize cholesterol, and stimulate the immune system.

Probiotics can be bought at the pharmacy, but it’s important to consult a health care provider before taking them. They will determine the right regimen and duration of treatment for you.

Candida proliferates in a high-moisture environment, and tampons and pads can trap excess moisture, creating an environment where yeast can flourish. That’s why it’s important to change tampons and pads often, particularly when the weather is hot. Tampons can be left in for four to eight hours, and pads should be changed at least every four to six hours.

The vaginal ecosystem is complex, and it normally has a variety of bacteria that play an important role in maintaining health.

Lactobacillus is a genus of bacteria that makes up 95 percent of the female genitourinary tract flora. It helps maintain the normal vaginal pH of less than 4.5.

Ovarian hormones play an important role in maintaining normal vaginal flora. According to some studies, estrogen levels could be a determining factor for whether lactobacilli flourish. 

The connection between vaginal microbial flora, menstruation, and estrogen levels has yet to be completely defined by research. 

Some studies indicate that elevated estrogen levels are a risk factor for developing yeast infection. For example, the elevated estrogen levels during pregnancy result in both increased Candida albicans and increased risk of candidiasis. Taking estrogens, such as oral contraceptives, is also associated with increased levels of Candida albicans.

Although some studies have found that there is a link between estrogen level (which changes during each menstrual cycle) and yeast infection, there’s no direct evidence linking yeast infection and periods.

Each cycle, estrogen levels drop just before a period starts. Current studies suggest that elevated estrogen may promote yeast infection. But there isn’t enough data to conclusively state that changing estrogen levels affect the vaginal environment and cause yeast infections.

Some people get recurring yeast infections before their periods. Nevertheless, there isn’t definite data on the connection between the hormonal changes that occur before menses and the internal vaginal environment. 

There are several other factors that may cause a yeast infection. These include taking antibiotics, pregnancy, a weakened immune system, uncontrolled diabetes, eating excessive sugary foods, lack of sleep, and stress. 

Most yeast infections are caused by the yeast Candida albicans and are easily treatable. But if you’re getting recurrent infections or your yeast infection won’t go away after treatment, then it may be caused by a different species of Candida. A lab test can identify the type of Candida causing your infection.

There is no scientific proof that periods will “flush” a yeast infection. It’s possible to have a yeast infection during your period, and it can be especially uncomfortable. 

It’s important to consult a health care provider if you have symptoms of a yeast infection during your period. They might prescribe oral antifungals to treat a yeast infection during a period. 

Pads, menstrual cups, or tampons can still be used if you have a yeast infection while on your period. But it’s important to change them often. Avoid douching as it removes the normal bacteria from the vagina, which can upset its pH balance. 

Yeast infection (candidiasis) can occur regardless of age or sexual history.

The infection, which often presents as itching and a white, thick, clumpy discharge, isn’t a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and, in many cases, it has nothing to do with sexual activity.

Candida are a normal part of the vaginal microbial flora. When their growth is restrained by the body’s defenses, they’re harmless.

When the body is weakened, there is a risk of yeast infection. Candidiasis can be triggered by frequent colds, stress, inadequate nutrition, poor hygiene, and taking antibiotics, among other things.

If you have a yeast infection, it’s better to abstain from sex.

Although candidiasis isn’t a sexually transmitted infection, your partner could get a yeast infection from unprotected sex, depending on their immune response.

In addition, sex could aggravate your condition because the vaginal tissue is already inflamed. And sex could be uncomfortable because a yeast infection is usually accompanied by itching and soreness. If you weren’t experiencing those symptoms before sexual intercourse, they’re likely to occur after.

It’s advisable to avoid having sex when you have a yeast infection, as it may prolong the infection. There’s also a chance you could pass the infection to your partner. Having sex while you’re in the process of treating a yeast infection may slow down the healing process. And if your partner gets a yeast infection from sex with you, the infection could be passed back and forth between you. That’s why it’s best to avoid having sex until all the signs and symptoms of a yeast infection have cleared up with treatment. 

It’s important to treat a yeast infection as soon as you notice symptoms, because they can become chronic under certain conditions (low immune function and diabetes are two examples).

Complicated yeast infection is defined as infections that occur in a patient who is immunocompromised, severe infections, or infections that occur four or more times in a year. 

For a proper diagnosis, it’s important to document infection frequency and get a smear test to determine what’s causing the infection.

The test results can help a health care provider prescribe the correct treatment and halt the progression of the infection.

Vaginal yeast infection manifests as itching, burning, redness of the vulva and vagina, white and curdy discharge, and pain during urination and sex.

It’s important to consult a health care provider if you experience these symptoms. They will prescribe treatment without any additional tests (Candidiasis symptoms are quite evident) or do a smear test for further examination.

Antifungal drugs are generally available over the counter, but recovery depends on taking an adequate dosage, drug type, and treatment duration prescribed by a health care provider.

A health care provider can prescribe pills that have a systemic effect on the body. Suppositories and creams introduced into the vagina (mainly at bedtime) produce a localized effect.

Taking a single dose of an antifungal medicine is sometimes enough to treat the infection, but a more serious therapy may also be required. Only topical preparations should be used during pregnancy. 

There is a wide range of creams, suppositories, vaginal pills, and oral medications available for yeast infections.

Many of them are available over the counter. However, despite the availability of treatment options, some people can’t get rid of a yeast infection permanently. It may become chronic and recur several times a year.

Here are the most common causes of chronic yeast infection:

  • Using medication to eliminate itching and burning that doesn’t have an antifungal effect. When buying medications, check the label.
  • The antifungal agent is not strong enough, or the fungus species may be resistant to the drug being taken.
  • The dosage is not sufficient.
  • The infection is secondary to another condition. For example, the vaginal flora hasn’t recovered after taking antibiotics.

Therefore, treatment should be carefully selected by a health care provider. This will reduce the risk of chronic infection.

Treating a yeast infection results in relief of symptoms and negative cultures among 80–90 percent of patients after treatment is completed, whether administered orally or intravaginally.

If your symptoms are severe, then they may require a long-term antifungal treatment regimen. 

The length of vaginal yeast infections may depend on two factors: the severity of the infection and the method of treatment. 

Mild infections may get better in a few days. But moderate-to-severe cases of infections may take up to two weeks to get better. 

Over-the-counter treatments are often successful in treating mild yeast infections, but they aren’t as potent as prescription medicines. Improperly treated yeast infections have an increased risk of recurrence, and they could increase in severity. 

If your yeast infection doesn’t go away after treatment or if your symptoms recur within two months of treatment, then visit your physician again. 

Eating the “right” food will not cure a yeast infection, but a healthy diet can help your body get rid of the infection faster and make its recurrence less likely.

These foods are best avoided:

  • Sugary products, such as sweets, candies, soda, some fruits and vegetables (sugar helps yeast grow)
  • Yeast
  • Preservatives and colorants (marinades, smoked foods, sauces)

You might want to try to include probiotics (found in yogurt, sour cream, and kefir) in your diet. Products with antibacterial and antifungal properties (for example, garlic, cloves, turmeric, and cinnamon) might be helpful, too.

It’s better to avoid self-diagnosing and self-medicating. If you have any symptoms, consult your health care provider.

To prevent a yeast infection:

  • Get screened for STIs regularly, since candidiasis often accompanies STIs.
  • Avoid sexual contact with people who have symptoms of yeast infection.
  • Monitor blood glucose levels, especially if you’re at risk of developing diabetes.
  • Practice proper personal hygiene and wear loose clothing made from natural fabrics. Synthetic material creates a moist environment, ideal for fungi growth.
  • Avoid using any scented products on your genitals and don’t use douches.

Balanced nutrition is also crucial to prevent infection. Make sure your diet has probiotics and  foods that are rich in fiber and protein.

“Vaginal Candidiasis.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Nov. 2020, www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/genital/index.html.

UA;, Paladine HL;Desai. “Vaginitis: Diagnosis and Treatment.” American Family Physician, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2018, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29671516/.

Mundula, Tiziana, et al. “Effect of Probiotics on Oral Candidiasis: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 14 Oct. 2019, www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/11/10/2449/htm.

Smith, Steven B, and Jacques Ravel. “The Vaginal Microbiota, Host Defence and Reproductive Physiology.” The Journal of Physiology, John Wiley and Sons Inc., 15 Jan. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5233653/.

“Vaginal Yeast Infection (Thrush): Overview.” InformedHealth.org [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 19 June 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK543220/.

Sherrard, Jackie, et al. “2018 European (IUSTI/WHO) International Union against Sexually Transmitted Infections (IUSTI) World Health Organisation (WHO) Guideline on the Management of Vaginal Discharge.” International Journal of STD & AIDS, vol. 29, no. 13, Nov. 2018, pp. 1258–1272, doi:10.1177/0956462418785451.

Cheng, Georgina et al. “Cellular and molecular biology of Candida albicans estrogen response.” Eukaryotic cell vol. 5,1 (2006): 180-91. doi:10.1128/EC.5.1.180-191.2006

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