4 Reasons You Have a Vaginal Yeast Infection—and What to Do About It

4 Reasons You Have a Vaginal Yeast Infection—and What to Do About It

From medications to sex, many things affect the health of your vagina.

Three out of four women will get a yeast infection at some point in their life, and almost half will have more than one. Yeast infections typically cause a thick and clumpy white discharge (similar to the consistency of cottage cheese), along with mild to severe burning and itching sensations near the vagina. You may even notice some sensitivity or inflammation around the outside of the vagina, says OBGYN Oscar Young, DO, of Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, California.

Yeast infections are the result of an overgrowth of the fungus Candida. But how does this happen? And how can you protect yourself from the discomfort? We spoke with Dr. Young for the answers.

Common causes of yeast infections
First things first: yeast infections occur when too much yeast grows in your vagina, and certain factors can raise your risk. Here's why you might get a yeast infection:  

Changes to your vaginal environment
“Anything that distorts the normal vaginal environment can cause yeast buildup,” says Young. “That means sexually transmitted diseases, a new partner you’re being intimate with or foreign objects like tampons.” Douching and vaginal sprays can also increase your risk. Not sure what’s appropriate? Here's a list of things you should (and shouldn’t) put down there.

Antibiotics like amoxicillin kill bacteria that make you sick, but can also kill your healthy vaginal bacteria, which could cause yeast organisms to grow.

High estrogen levels
Studies show women who are pregnant, taking high-dose estrogen birth control or undergoing estrogen hormone therapy may be more at risk for yeast infections.

Certain health conditions
If your blood sugar is poorly controlled or you have diabetes, your vagina may have excess yeast. Likewise, if you have a weakened immune system from conditions like corticosteroid therapy or HIV, your risk for infection could increase.

Common treatment options
Luckily, a lot of general vaginal yeast infections can be treated with over-the-counter antifungal medications that come in the form of creams, tablets or suppositories and they are very adequate if you truly have a yeast infection, though they sometimes may not work for certain strains of the fungus. If you notice symptoms like persistent vaginal discharge, itchiness or pain, you should see a physician, says Young.

To diagnose a yeast infection, your gynecologist will do a pelvic examination to look for swelling and vaginal discharge; she may have your discharge tested, as well. Based on the results, you could be prescribed a single dose of antifungal medication like fluconazole. Pregnant women can safely treat their vaginal yeast infections with medications that contain miconazole or clotrimazole, but need to avoid fluconazole.

6 ways to prevent yeast infections
Taking good care of your va-jay-jay and the area around it can help prevent problems like yeast infections. Here are some ways you can decrease your risk:   

  1. Try to keep your blood sugar in check. Some evidence suggests you should avoid high-sugar diets to prevent infections, says Young. If you have diabetes, it’s especially important to keep your blood sugar under control
  2. Wear cotton underwear—and avoid tight lingerie. Steer clear of too-snug underwear, pantyhose or pants. Wearing them can cause moisture to become trapped near your vagina. Cotton panties will keep the area dry better than other fabrics.
  3. Regularly change feminine products. Practicing proper hygiene habits, like regularly changing your tampons and pads, will go a long way toward preventing infections. If you do notice recurring abnormal discharge after wearing tampons, consider switching to pads—your tampons could be contributing to the infection.
  4. Be cautious when taking certain medications. If you’re prescribed an antibiotic or steroid, ask your doctor how to lower your risk of yeast infections. Be sure to take antibiotics only when necessary.  
  5. Try probiotics. Young says eating yogurt with “live cultures” or taking a daily probiotic may decrease your risk. While it can’t hurt, more research is needed to confirm the effects. Always talk to your healthcare provider to learn whether or not probiotics might be helpful, and if they are, which ones to choose.
  6. Avoid douching—at all costs: Cleaning your vagina by squirting it with fluids like water, vinegar, baking soda or iodine is called vaginal douching. Gynecologists recommend you avoid this practice entirely for many reasons, but largely because it may eliminate normal vaginal bacteria that safeguards against yeast infections.

The main takeaway? Yeast infections are very treatable, even if you do happen to get one. See your gynecologist when you have persistent symptoms so you can get relief—ASAP. 

Medically reviewed in August 2018.

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