Most of us don’t think about our vaginas during our busy days, but when our vagina starts to feel just plain angry, we can’t help but stop and notice! Did you know that 75% of women will experience a yeast infection? That means, gentle reader, you likely already know all too well how irritating and distracting this infection can feel. The remedy? Understand yeast infections and what you can do to keep your vagina happy and healthy.
Why the itch?
Your vagina is home to yeast, which is technically a fungus. In fact, yeast and bacteria live together in the vagina preventing infections and keeping you comfortable by maintaining a normal pH, which is a technical term to say that yeast and bacteria are in harmony—not too much of one or too little of the other.
When that balance is disrupted, and yeast overgrows, symptoms like itching, burning, soreness, and swelling can happen. You may also see vaginal discharge that looks like cottage cheese—and it should be odorless. If it has a foul, fishy odor, you’re more likely to have a bacterial infection.
Many things can upset the yeast-bacteria balance:
- Over-cleaning the vagina (especially on the inside with a douche)
- Birth control pills (because of higher estrogen levels)
- Uncontrolled diabetes
- Lingering in wet bathing suits or wet underwear after exercise
- Impaired immune system
Some women notice yeast symptoms after sex, especially after receiving oral sex, but don’t worry—this doesn’t mean you’ve gotten this infection from your partner. Oftentimes, a yeast infection just happens without a specific cause.
Bacterial or Yeast Infection?
If you’ve had a yeast infection before, and are certain your symptoms are similar, you can try using an over-the-counter remedy. See your healthcare provider if you’ve never had a yeast infection before—or if you suspect it may be something else.
Most women’s health care providers can diagnose a yeast infection just by looking at and in your vagina. Sometimes, a sample for testing is needed to confirm the type of infection. This involves a swab inside your vagina—this may be uncomfortable because your vagina is already irritated—but it shouldn’t hurt.
Most healthcare practices can examine the sample under a microscope while you’re there—or it may need to be sent to a lab for diagnosis. Maybe you’ve considered using one of the home test kits that can measure the pH of the vagina. These can be problematic because even if you find changes in your vaginal pH, it doesn’t always mean you have an infection. Semen and blood can change your vagina’s pH. As possible, see your healthcare provider for a certain diagnosis and the best treatment for you.
Treating Vaginal Infections
There are lots of drugstore and prescription options for treating a yeast infection:
- Vaginal tablets
If you’re certain you have a yeast infection, and it’s not one that keeps repeating itself in your vagina and you have no other health issues going on, try an over-the-counter yeast infection kit, which usually come in 1-, 3- or 7-day dose packages.
Use these treatments at bedtime; they can be messy and leak out of your vagina. Some common treatment options also come with a topical vaginal cream to use outside your vagina to soothe the itch. Prescription creams are very similar to the options you can get in most stores but may be stronger or contain a steroid to help resolve the itch and burning more quickly.
Protect yourself from pregnancy if you’re using a cream to treat a yeast infection as the cream can damage latex condoms or diaphragms.
For severe infections, or if you’re sensitive to creams, your healthcare provider may prescribe a single-dose pill you take with water called fluconazole. This medicine kills fungus throughout your body, including your vagina.
Some blogs and websites suggest tea tree oil, yogurt-soaked tampons, garlicky vaginal suppositories, douching with vinegar, coconut oil or oregano oil can all cure a yeast infection. Do they work? While they’re unlikely to harm you, they simply haven’t proven to help.
Once you agree on a treatment with you healthcare provider, always finish the entire treatment and be patient–it can take several days before you’re feeling better!
For most women, yeast infections will go away as quickly as they started. But sometimes, an infection comes back over and over again. If this happens, it’s important to be examined by your care provider to make sure your immune system is healthy and that you don’t have diabetes.
You may need special tests and an extended treatment such as a weekly prescription vaginal cream or oral tablet for 4-8 weeks. Another option is treatment with a boric acid suppository. Boric acid is an antiviral/antifungal crystalline powder that is placed in a gelatin capsule and inserted into the vagina. In rare cases, if all treatments fail, you may need to be evaluated by a vaginitis specialist, a health care provider who focuses on severe, recurrent infections.
Preventing Yeast Infections
Maintaining a perfectly balanced vaginal pH is the best way to keep yeast infections away. Simple ways to promote a healthy pH include:
- Wear cotton underwear; not nylon underwear and thongs
- Avoid using panty liners every day
- Never douche or use scented “feminine hygiene products”
- Change out of wet clothes, such as swimsuits or exercise shorts, as soon as you can
- Avoid unnecessary antibiotics
- Don’t “over-clean” the vagina
Your vagina is self-cleaning! Cleanse around the vagina with only warm water and a mild unscented soap on the outside only. No internal cleansing is necessary—in fact, it can disrupt that important pH!
Researchers are currently studying whether probiotics can help maintain the right vaginal pH and prevent yeast infections—but the evidence is still being collected as to whether probiotics are useful in this way.
Vaginal Infections in Pregnancy
If you’re having symptoms of a vaginal infection during pregnancy, contact your healthcare provider before self-treating. Yeast infections are common during pregnancy because high estrogen levels promote the growth of yeast. While you may not be comfortable, these infections won’t harm your baby. Most treatments are even safe during pregnancy, but please check with your care provider before using any treatment during pregnancy.