What is a yeast infection?
At least once in their lives, most women have experienced the nearly intolerable itching caused by a vaginal yeast infection. The good news is that these infections are usually easy to treat and get rid of.
Yeast (the scientific name is Candida albicans) is a fungus that flourishes in the moist areas of your body. It can grow in the digestive tract, the folds of the skin, and, in women, the vagina. Normally your body produces enough friendly bacteria to keep yeast from really gaining a foothold. But sometimes the yeast wins out and take over, resulting in an infection. When this happens in the vagina, it's called a vaginal yeast infection.
How do I know if I have a yeast infection?
If you have a vaginal yeast infection, you will most likely experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- burning and itching in the vaginal area
- thick white discharge that looks like cottage cheese
- redness and swelling of your vulva
- pain or soreness during intercourse
- frequent urination, along with a burning sensation while urinating
Why did I get an infection?
Yeast infections are quite common; three out of four women battle them at least once before menopause. You're more likely to develop an infection if any of the following applies to you:
- You're taking antibiotics. These medications can kill the "friendly" bacteria in your vagina and allow Candida to take over.
- You're pregnant or taking birth control pills. The hormonal changes caused by either can alter the pH balance in your vagina, making it more alkaline -- an environment in which yeast thrives.
- You have diabetes. It lowers your resistance to infection and raises the sugar content in your blood and urine, which encourages yeast to grow.
- Your immune system has been weakened by anything from a cold or stress to chemotherapy treatments or HIV.
Do I need to see a doctor?
If you've never had a yeast infection before, see your physician, since symptoms can mimic other conditions, such as chlamydia, a serious sexually transmitted disease. Your doctor will confirm that it is indeed yeast by taking a sample of the discharge from your vagina.
If Candida is old news to you and you're sure you're dealing with the yeast beast, go ahead with the self-help measures listed below. Be aware, however, that if you get frequent infections (every three months or more), there's a chance you may have a serious illness, such as diabetes, chlamydia or HIV, so see your doctor. Also, be sure to make a medical appointment right away if you have deep pain in your pelvis, swollen glands in the groin area, or are running a fever of 101 degrees or more, since any of these symptoms can indicate something more serious.
What are the best ways to treat an infection?
Over-the-counter creams and vaginal suppositories containing miconazole and clotrimazole are generally effective in treating yeast. You'll need to apply these every night before bed for one to seven days (depending on the product you buy), and your symptoms should subside in a few days. Be sure to finish the entire course of treatment -- even if your symptoms are gone -- to make sure you eradicate all of the yeast; otherwise, it'll be back before you know it. Or talk to your doctor about taking Diflucan. It can defeat yeast with a single dose, but it's available only by prescription.
Be aware, though, that the leading over-the-counter products warn, "Do not use if you have never had a vaginal yeast infection diagnosed by a doctor." That is to ensure that you do have a yeast infection and not another, more serious condition that the creams cannot treat.
If you prefer a natural remedy and your infection is mild, consider the following:
- Studies show that acidophilus, a bacteria found in yogurt, effectively combats yeast. The easiest approach is to eat one cup of yogurt with "live" or "active" cultures (check the label) a day. Or you can go the direct route and insert the acidophilus straight into your vagina using: 1) a tampon applicator filled with yogurt, 2) a bulb syringe containing one tablespoon of liquid acidophilus, 3) an acidophilus capsule, or 4) a douche consisting of yogurt and water.
- Vinegar-and-water douches can turn a yeast-friendly alkaline vagina into a yeast-unfriendly acidic vagina. However, douching also flushes out the "friendly" bacteria that fight yeast, so doing it regularly isn't a good idea.
How can I prevent yeast infections?
- Eat yogurt with live acidophilus. Not only can it fight an active infection, but one study found that women who ate a cup of yogurt every day were three times less likely to develop yeast infections than women who didn't eat yogurt. If you're not a yogurt fan, look for acidophilus in capsules or liquids.
- Keep your vaginal area cool and dry. Pat yourself dry with a towel after baths and showers, then wait a few minutes to "air dry" before getting dressed.
- If you work up a sweat in the gym, shower and change your damp underwear afterward
- Wear cotton underwear and pantyhose with a cotton crotch. Loose clothes, especially skirts, are ideal. Sleep without panties to give yourself a "breather." And never sit around in a wet bathing suit.
- Avoid douching; feminine hygiene sprays or powders; and spermicidal foams, gels, or creams. All of these can wipe out friendly bacteria and allow Candida to stage a comeback.
- Wipe front to back after every bowel movement to prevent yeast in your intestinal tract from traveling from your anus to your vagina. Washing the area afterward with warm soapy water will also help.
- Use condoms. Men rarely develop yeast infections, since the penis doesn't provide the warm moist environment in which yeast flourish. However, enough yeast may live on the skin of the penis to infect you. Using a condom can prevent you from passing yeast back and forth.
- Add garlic to your diet. Several studies show that it has anti-yeast effects.
American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Vaginitis. 2010. http://www.acog.org/publications/patient_education/bp028.cfm
Mayo Clinic. Yeast infection (vaginal). 2010. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/yeast-infection/DS01182
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Vaginal yeast infection. 2008. http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/vaginalyeast/Pages/Default.aspx