It itches. It burns. It’s embarrassing to talk about. If you’ve ever had one, you know what it’s like. If not, you’re lucky. I’m referring to a yeast infection, a non-serious but very uncomfortable vaginal condition that I see frequently in my female patients at Westchester Health. (Although relatively rare, men can also get yeast infections from having unprotected sex with a woman who has a yeast infection.)
There are many over-the-counter treatments for yeast infections but the best course of action is to see your doctor, because other infections can cause similar symptoms, including some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Is it a yeast infection or a UTI? How to tell.
The typical symptoms of a yeast infection:
- itching and irritation in the vagina
- swelling and irritation of the vulva (the area and folds of skin outside the vagina)
- pain or burning when urinating or having sex
- thick, white vaginal discharge that resembles cottage cheese
Symptoms are more likely to occur the week before a menstrual period. Some women experience several of these symptoms, while others may only notice one or two.
The typical symptoms of a UTI:
- burning while urinating
- frequent or intense urge to urinate, even though little comes out when you do
- pain or pressure in your back or lower abdomen
- cloudy, dark, bloody or strange-smelling urine
- feeling tired or shaky
- fever or chills
What causes a vaginal yeast infection?
Yeast is a fungus that normally lives in the vagina in small amounts, but a vaginal yeast infection means that too many yeast cells are present, which causes symptoms. This “over-growth” of yeast cells can be caused by:
- taking antibiotics which can kill too much “good” bacteria and result in too much yeast growing in the vagina
- high estrogen levels caused by pregnancy or hormone therapy
- certain health problems, like diabetes or HIV infection
- problems with the immune system
- corticosteroids which can weaken the immune system
- tight-fitting, nonabsorbent pants or undergarments that hold in warmth and moisture
- feminine hygiene sprays, talcs or perfumes used in the vaginal area
Contrary to popular belief, yeast infections are not sexually transmitted. After having unprotected sex with a partner who has a yeast infection, you may have more than the normal amount of yeast in your vagina. However, if after having sex you develop a yeast infection with symptoms, it is most likely because other health factors are involved.
How to treat
If you’re not pregnant, you can treat yourself at home with common OTC remedies such an antifungal cream, a vaginal suppository or antifungal tablets. Alternatively, if your symptoms are mild, you may just want to wait and see if they clear up on their own.
NOTE: If you use a cream or suppository to treat a yeast infection, do not depend on a condom or diaphragm for birth control. The oil in some yeast infection medicines weakens latex, the material often used in condoms and diaphragms.
If your yeast infection regularly comes back
If you have more than 4 yeast infections in one year, see your doctor. He/she will perform tests to see if your yeast infections are being caused by another health problem, such as diabetes.
7 ways to prevent yeast infections
By practicing good genital hygiene and following these 7 guidelines, you can help prevent most (if not all) vaginal yeast infections:
- Keep your vaginal area clean. Use mild, unscented soap and water. Rinse well.
- After using the toilet, wipe from front to back to avoid spreading yeast or bacteria from your anus to the vagina or urinary tract.
- Wear underwear that helps keep your genital area dry and doesn’t hold in warmth and moisture (cotton is best).
- Avoid tight-fitting clothing, such as pantyhose and tight-fitting jeans. These may increase body heat and moisture in your genital area.
- Change out of a wet bathing suit right away. Wearing a wet suit for many hours keeps your genital area warm and moist.
- Change sanitary pads or tampons often.
- Don’t douche or use deodorant tampons, feminine sprays, powders or perfumes. These items can change the normal balance of organisms in your vagina.
Concerned that you may have a yeast infection? Come see us.
If you think you may have a vaginal yeast infection, or have yeast infections that keep coming back, please make an appointment with Westchester Health to see one of our OB/GYNs. He/she will make a diagnosis, determine if a related health condition is also involved, and together with you, choose the best course of treatment so you can soon get relief and feel better. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.