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.

tampon

Medically reviewed in May 2022

Updated on May 2, 2022

If you’re like many women, you’re familiar with yeast infections. About three-quarters of women will develop one at some point in their life, and nearly half will have more than one, according to the federal government’s Office on Women’s Health.

Yeast infections are the result of an overgrowth of the fungus Candida. Along with a thick, white discharge the consistency of cottage cheese, symptoms often include 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.

But what causes yeast infections? And importantly, how can you prevent them?

Common causes of yeast infections
First thing's first: Yeast infections occur when too much yeast grows in your vagina. Certain factors can raise your risk, including:

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.

Medications. 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 or take high-dose estrogen birth control 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
Many general vaginal yeast infections can be treated with over-the-counter antifungal medications that come in the form of creams, tablets, or suppositories. They are effective treatments, though sometimes they may not work for certain strains of the fungus.

If you notice symptoms like persistent vaginal discharge, itchiness, or pain, you should see a healthcare provider (HCP), says Young. Don’t treat yourself before talking with an HCP, for a few reasons:

  • You may not have a yeast infection, but rather another condition, such as bacterial vaginosis or a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
  • Taking yeast infection medication when you don’t have a yeast infection can increase your resistance to the treatment.
  • Certain medications can mess with condoms and diaphragms, which could raise your risk of pregnancy or STIs. 

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

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

  1. Wipe from front to back after using the bathroom. Don’t wipe from back to front. This helps keep bacteria from your anus from reaching your vagina.
     
  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. Avoid douching. Cleaning your vagina by squirting it with fluids like water, vinegar, baking soda, or iodine is called vaginal douching. Providers recommend you avoid this practice entirely for many reasons, but largely because it may eliminate normal vaginal bacteria that safeguards against yeast infections.
     
  5. Skip scented products. This includes tampons and pads, bubble baths, and feminine or freshening sprays.
     
  6. Take a pass on hot tubs and super-hot baths. Along the same lines, don’t spend too long in a wet swimsuit. Change into dry clothes as soon as possible.
     
  7. Be cautious when taking certain medications. If you’re prescribed an antibiotic or steroid, ask your HCP how to lower your risk of yeast infections. Be sure to take antibiotics only when necessary.
     
  8. 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 HCP to learn whether probiotics might be helpful, and if they are, which ones to choose.
     
  9. If you have diabetes, try to keep your blood sugar in check. If you do not have diabetes, some experts believe that avoiding high-sugar diets may help prevent infections. This is important advice to improve your overall nutrition.

The main takeaway? Yeast infections are very treatable if you happen to get one. See your HCP as soon as you can when you have persistent symptoms so you can get relief.

Article sources open article sources

Vaginal yeast infections. Office on Women’s Health. April 1, 2019. Accessed April 29, 2022.
Douching. Office on Women’s Health. February 22, 2021. Accessed April 29, 2022.
Yeast infection (vaginal). Mayo Clinic. March 17, 2021. Accessed April 29, 2022.
Yeast Infections. Cleveland Clinic. October 26, 2019. Accessed May 2, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Yeast infection during pregnancy: Over-the-counter treatment OK? January 6, 2021. Accessed May 2, 2022.
Tuesday Q & A: Probiotics may have health benefits, but talk to your doctor first. Mayo Clinic News Network. February 25, 2014. Accessed April 29, 2022.
American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Vaginitis. 2022. Accessed May 2, 2022.
MedlinePlus. Vulvovaginitis. June 3, 2020. Accessed May 2, 2022.
Erekson EA, Li FY, et al. Vulvovaginal symptoms prevalence in postmenopausal women and relationship to other menopausal symptoms and pelvic floor disorders. Menopause. 2016 Apr;23(4):368-75.

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