We’ve all had those mornings you wake up and something just isn’t right with your lady parts. It may start as a little discomfort and then escalates into some major burning and itching just when you need it least – like the first day of your beach vacation. Yeast infections are a common worry for most women: up to 75% of women will experience the burning and itching of a yeast infection in their lifetimes. Knowing what weakens your natural defenses against yeast can help you keep it under control, and recognizing the signs of infection can simplify treatment and help you treat it faster.
What is a Yeast Infection?
Yeast is everywhere – we use different strains of this versatile fungus to make bread and beer, and we even add it to our vitamin supplements. It’s normal for women to have a small amount of yeast present on their skin and in their vaginas (often the Candida albicans strain) and it’s usually harmless, but if it grows out of control you have a yeast infection.
Symptoms of a Yeast Infection
Vaginal infections can be tough to diagnose on your own, since the most common vaginal infections and some sexually transmitted diseases can have similar symptoms. So unless you’re positive it’s yeast, it might be a good idea to see your doctor before treating it. The most common signs of a yeast infection are:
- Burning, itching, redness, and swelling of your vagina or vulva (the outside of the vagina)
- Painful urination
- Pain during sex
- Soreness of the vagina or pelvic area
- A thick, white vaginal discharge that looks like cottage cheese, but no bad smell
- A rash on the vagina
You can choose to treat it at home, but if you experience yeast infections more than 4 times in a year, it could be an underlying issue that your doctor needs to assess.
What Causes Yeast Infections and How Do I Avoid Them?
A healthy vagina has certain good bacteria that helps maintain a naturally acidic pH and keeps the population of yeast and bad bacteria from growing. This natural balance within your vagina can be upset by many different factors:
Antibiotics: Some antibiotics can kill the good bacteria and allow the bad bacteria and yeast to increase. Recent research indicates that yogurt and probiotics (pills containing good bacteria like those in your vagina) can help your body rebuild the natural balance of bacteria – particularly lactobacillus, the most common microbe in your vagina.
Hormonal changes: During pregnancy or menopause, when estrogen levels are low, your pH becomes less acidic, which allows some bacteria and yeast to multiply. You can discuss options for avoiding vaginal infections caused by hormonal changes with your doctor.
Menstruation: Blood has a high pH (alkaline rather than acidic) which can kill the good bacteria in your vagina and leave yeast to grow out of control. Just what you need right after your period – another week of discomfort! If you start to notice more infections around your period try to avoid absorbent products like tampons, which give yeast and harmful bacteria a good surface to multiply. Instead try a menstrual cup – they’re made of medical-grade silicone and discourage yeast and bacterial growth.
Douching: If you put cleaners or water inside your vagina it can change your pH and some additives can irritate the tissue. When you clean your intimate area, use a gentle, pH balanced wash and only on the vulva, and if you use a feminine moisturizer make sure that is also pH balanced.
Poor diet: if you’re not getting enough nutrients your body could have a harder time controlling yeast and bacterial growth. Diets with a high sugar content can also cause you issues, because yeast thrives on sugar. Just another reason to start eating healthy!
Weak Immune System: If you’re already sick or have a disease that weakens your immune system, you might have more issues with infections as your body fights off other attackers. Pay close attention to your vaginal health to catch any infections early and start treatment before they cause further problems.
Wearing Tight, Synthetic Clothes: Yeast loves warm, dark and moist places – so tight clothes that hold in heat are a no-no. Wearing loose, breathable cotton clothes and underwear (or even no underwear at all) can help avoid infections.
You can see more surprising causes of yeast infections here.
While yeast infections are relatively easy to treat with over the counter medication or prescription antibiotics, it’s much better to try and prevent infections before they happen. Preventing yeast infections just means protecting your vagina’s natural cleaning ability and being vigilant about your health – and avoiding the itch is definitely worth it!