What is a vaginal yeast infection?
Throughout your life, you may experience a vaginal yeast infection several times. Though uncomfortable, these infections are common. A vaginal yeast infection is a condition characterized by burning, itching, redness, and a white discharge from the vagina and vulva. These infections are caused by something that’s already in your body—a fungal body (yeast) called candida. Yeast is a type of fungus and candida is a specific type of yeast. When this yeast is balanced with the ecosystem of your body, there are no problems. But when that balance is disrupted, the yeast rapidly grows and you can get a yeast infection.
Vaginal yeast infections are also called vulvovaginal candidiasis or vaginal candidiasis. A vaginal yeast infection is actually a type of vaginitis, a condition where the vagina is swollen, painful and creates a discharge. There are several types of vaginitis—each with similar symptoms—but vaginal yeast infections are one of the most common.
How common are vaginal yeast infections?
Vaginal yeast infections are very common and happen to over 1 million women in the United States every year. These infections are the second most common cause of vaginitis.
What is candida?
It may be strange to think about, but fungus normally lives in several places within your body. One type of fungus—more specifically, yeast (a type of fungus)—that you have living in your mouth, digestive tract and vagina is candida. Normally, candida doesn’t cause a problem. It is supposed to be in your body. However, there is a careful balancing act constantly happening within your body and when it tilts one way or another, you may become sick.
There are several conditions you can develop when candida goes out of balance. If you develop a lot of the fungus in your mouth, it’s called thrush. If it develops in your vagina, it’s a vaginal yeast infection.
Symptoms and Causes
Why do vaginal yeast infections happen?
The loss of chemical balance in your vagina can cause candida to multiply. This can happen for a lot of reasons, including:
- When you take an antibiotic medication that’s treating an infection of any type—a urinary tract infection (UTI) is one example. While treating this infection, good bacteria in the vagina is killed. This good bacteria was responsible for keeping the yeast in check. Without it, the balance is thrown off, leading to a yeast infection.
- During pregnancy and while using hormonal contraceptives (birth control). Your hormones can be all over the charts during pregnancy. This change in your hormones can disrupt the balance of candida in the vagina.
- If you have diabetes. When you have diabetes, there is too much sugar in your urine and the vagina is impacted by this surplus of sugar.
- Having a weakened immune system. If you have a disease, like HIV or AIDS, your medications can suppress your immune system.
What are the symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection?
There are several tell-tale signs of a vaginal yeast infection. These symptoms can include:
- An itchy sensation in the vagina and vulva.
- A thick, white vaginal discharge with the consistency of cottage cheese.
- Redness and swelling of the vagina and vulva.
- Small cuts or tiny cracks in the skin of the vulva because of friable skin in the area.
- A burning feeling when you urinate.
In some cases, another symptom of a vaginal yeast infection can be pain during sex.
Diagnosis and Tests
How is a vaginal yeast infection diagnosed?
A vaginal yeast infection is diagnosed by your healthcare provider. You will need to go in for an appointment and discuss your symptoms. Your healthcare provider may need to take a sample of discharge from your vagina to confirm the yeast infection. The combination of your symptoms and the sample of discharge will tell your healthcare provider what type of yeast infection you have and help determine the best way to treat the infection.
Management and Treatment
How do I treat a vaginal yeast infection?
When thinking about treatment for a vaginal yeast infection, it is important to know that there are many different types of yeast. Your healthcare provider may discuss different types of treatment depending on the type of yeast infection.
Your doctor will typically treat a vaginal yeast infection with an antifungal medication. This type of medication is specifically used to combat overgrowths of yeast in the body.
There are two forms of medication: oral or topical. Oral medications are taken by the mouth, while topical medications are applied to the affected area. Topical medications may include boric acid, nystatin, miconazole or clotrimazole. Your healthcare provider will give you information about each form of medication and directions on how to properly use each one. It is important to always follow your provider’s instructions when using these medications to make sure that the infection is fully resolved and doesn’t return.
Can I use over-the-counter treatment for a vaginal yeast infection?
Sometimes you can treat a vaginal yeast infection with over-the-counter medicines. However, you may want to avoid this if you aren’t completely sure that it’s actually a yeast infection. It is usually best to talk to your healthcare provider and make sure you are getting the right treatment for the condition.
How can I prevent vaginal yeast infections?
You often can prevent vaginal yeast infections by making a few lifestyle changes. These changes can include:
- Not douching—douching can kill bacteria that actually controls fungus.
- Avoiding the use of feminine deodorants.
- Not using deodorant (scented) tampons or pads.
- Changing out of wet clothing, especially bathing suits, as soon as you can.
- Using water-based sexual lubricants.
If you have diabetes, it is important to keep your blood sugar level as close to normal as possible. Controlling your diabetes can help prevent vaginal yeast infections.
The symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection are similar to other conditions. If you have any questions, a physical exam by your healthcare provider will help.
What should I do if I have frequent yeast infections?
If you frequently have yeast infections, you should have a discussion with your healthcare provider. Your provider may:
- Test to confirm that you really have a vaginal yeast infection.
- Get a blood sugar test for diabetes.
- Test for HIV/AIDS.
- Discuss any possible hormonal changes (birth control or pregnancy).
Your healthcare provider will use your test results to make sure you are receiving the right treatment. It can be important to treat the underlying cause while treating your yeast infection. Controlling the reason for the infection can help prevent future vaginal yeast infections.