What is a vaginal yeast infection?
Yeast is a fungus that normally lives in the vagina in small numbers. A vaginal yeast infection means that too many yeast cells are growing in the vagina. These infections are very common. They may bother you a lot, but they usually aren't serious. A yeast infection is not a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
What causes it?
A healthy vagina has many bacteria and a few yeast cells. When something changes the balance of these organisms, yeast can grow too much and cause symptoms. Things that may increase your risk for vaginal yeast overgrowth include taking antibiotics, high estrogen levels from pregnancy or hormone therapy, or certain health problems, like diabetes.
What are the symptoms?
A yeast infection can cause itching or irritation in the vagina or vulva. It sometimes causes pain or burning when you urinate or have sex. And it may also cause a thick, clumpy, white discharge that has no odor and looks a little like cottage cheese.
How is it diagnosed?
Doctors diagnose a vaginal yeast infection by asking about your symptoms and medical history, doing a pelvic exam, and taking a sample of vaginal discharge. The sample can be tested to find out if you have a yeast infection.
How is a vaginal yeast infection treated?
Yeast infections can be treated with an over-the-counter antifungal medicine that you put into your vagina. If you think you have a yeast infection, talk to your doctor before you try an over-the-counter medicine. Treatment options also include a prescription oral pill or vaginal medicine.
How can you help prevent a vaginal yeast infection?
Genital hygiene practices can help prevent yeast infections. Wash your vulva with plain water or unscented soap. After using the toilet, wipe from front to back. Avoid tight-fitting clothing. Wear cotton underwear. Change out of damp clothes right away. Change pads or tampons often. Don't douche or use vaginal powders, sprays, or perfumes.
A healthy vagina has many bacteria and a small number of yeast cells. Certain bacteria help keep yeast and other organisms under control. When something happens to change the balance of these organisms, yeast can grow too much and cause symptoms.
Things that may increase your risk for an overgrowth of vaginal yeast include:
- Taking antibiotics.
- Having a higher estrogen level. This may occur during pregnancy or with hormone therapy use during menopause.
- Having diabetes, especially if your blood sugar tends to be high.
- Having a disease that weakens the immune system, such as HIV.
- Using steroid medicines, such as prednisone.
Most yeast infections are caused by a type of yeast called Candida albicans.
The following actions may help prevent a vaginal yeast infection.
- Choose healthy foods.
Eat a variety of foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein foods.
Some people think that eating foods with lactobacillus organisms, such as yogurt, can help prevent yeast infections. So far there is no evidence for this connection. But eating foods that contain lactobacillus can be part of a healthy diet.
- Manage diabetes.
Keeping your blood sugar levels in your target range can decrease the risk of yeast infections.
- Avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics.
Antibiotics can change the normal balance of vaginal organisms, allowing excess growth of yeast.
- Practice genital hygiene.
- Wash your vulva with plain water or a mild, unscented soap. 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 doesn't hold in warmth and moisture. One good choice is cotton underwear.
- Avoid tight-fitting clothing, such as tight jeans. These may increase body heat and moisture.
- Change out of wet or damp clothes as soon as possible.
- Change pads or tampons often.
- Don't douche, use deodorant tampons, or use sprays, powders, or perfumes in your vagina or on your vulva. These items can change the normal balance of organisms in your vagina.
The symptoms of vaginal yeast infection include:
- Itching in the vagina or vulva.
- Thick, clumpy, white vaginal discharge. It has no odor. It looks a little like cottage cheese.
- A red, irritated vulva.
- Pain while urinating. This occurs when urine touches irritated skin.
- Pain in the vagina during sexual intercourse.
Symptoms are more likely to occur during the week before your menstrual period.
Vaginal yeast infections may clear up on their own without treatment. This may happen when menstruation begins.
If your symptoms don't go away on their own, treatment can help. But in some cases yeast infections may be difficult to treat. Or they may come back after treatment. If you have a recurring yeast infection, you may be evaluated for other causes (such as diabetes, hormone therapy, or treatment-resistant strains of yeast) so that the cause can be treated.
When to Call a Doctor
Call your doctor now if you:
- Have pain in your lower belly along with a fever and vaginal discharge. This may point to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
- Are pregnant and have symptoms of a vaginal infection or a urinary tract infection (UTI).
Call your doctor for an appointment if you:
- Have an unusual vaginal discharge with an unusual or foul odor.
- Have unusual vaginal itching.
- Have pain during sex or urination.
- Have unexpected vaginal bleeding.
- Still have symptoms after trying home treatment with a nonprescription medicine.
- Are not getting better as expected.
If your symptoms are mild and you are sure they are caused by a vaginal yeast infection, waiting several days to see if the symptoms clear up on their own isn't harmful, especially if you expect your menstrual period within that time. Sometimes a menstrual period will relieve the symptoms of a mild yeast infection. If your symptoms continue, you can use nonprescription medicine. If you still have symptoms after treatment, see your doctor.
Exams and Tests
Doctors diagnose a vaginal yeast infection by asking about your symptoms and medical history, doing a pelvic exam, and taking a sample of vaginal discharge. The sample can be tested to find out if you have a yeast infection. Tests may include:
- A wet mount test to look for signs of yeast or other organisms.
- A vaginal culture. This can confirm that you have a yeast infection.
- A blood test to find out if you have a health problem that makes you more likely to get yeast infections.
A mild vaginal yeast infection may go away without treatment. If your symptoms are mild, you may want to wait to see if they clear up on their own.
If your symptoms continue, talk to your doctor. Yeast infections can be treated with an over-the-counter antifungal medicine that you put into your vagina. If you think you have a yeast infection, talk to your doctor before you try an over-the-counter medicine. Treatment options also include a prescription oral pill or vaginal medicine.
Here are some things you can do at home to ease symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection.
- Keep these things in mind when using a vaginal medicine.
- Follow the directions on the package insert on how to use the medicine.
- If you are on your period, use pads instead of tampons. Do this while you are using the medicine. Tampons can absorb the medicine.
- Don't have sex until you have finished your treatment. But if you do have sex, don't depend on a latex condom or diaphragm for birth control. The oil in some vaginal medicines weakens latex.
- Avoid using scented soap.
When you clean your vulva, use plain water or a mild, unscented soap.
- Sit in cool water.
- If the genitals are swollen or painful, sitting in cool water may help. Or you can try putting a cool, damp cloth on the area.
- Don't rub to try to relieve itching.
- Talk to your doctor before you try supplements or home treatment methods.
- Home treatments, such as tea tree oil or garlic supplements, are not well studied. And they may cause problems for some people.
- Don't douche or use powders, sprays, or perfumes in your vagina or on your vulva.
- These items can change the normal balance of organisms in your vagina.
Current as of: August 2, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Deborah A. Penava BA, MD, FRCSC, MPH - Obstetrics and Gynecology