A vaginal yeast infection, also known as candidiasis, is a common condition. A healthy vagina contains bacteria and some yeast cells. But when the balance of bacteria and yeast changes, the yeast cells can multiply. This causes intense itching, swelling, and irritation.
Treating a vaginal yeast infection can relieve symptoms within a few days. In more severe cases, it may take up to two weeks.
Vaginal yeast infections aren’t considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Sexual contact can spread it, but women who aren’t sexually active can also get them. Once you get a yeast infection, you’re also more likely to get another one.
Vaginal yeast infections have a common set of symptoms, such as:
- vaginal itching
- swelling around the vagina
- burning during urination or sex
- pain during sex
Whitish-gray and clumpy vaginal discharge is another telltale symptom. Some people say this discharge looks like cottage cheese. Sometimes the discharge may also be watery.
Usually the length of time your yeast infection is left untreated has a direct impact on how severe your symptoms may become.
The fungus Candida is a naturally occurring microorganism in the vaginal area. Lactobacillus bacteria keeps its growth in check.
But if there’s an imbalance in your system, these bacteria won’t work effectively. This leads to an overgrowth of yeast, which causes the symptoms of vaginal yeast infections.
Several factors can cause a yeast infection, including:
- antibiotics (they decrease the amount of Lactobacillus [“good bacteria”] in the vagina)
- uncontrolled diabetes
- weak immune system
- poor eating habits, including a lot of sugary foods
- hormonal imbalance near your menstrual cycle
- lack of sleep
A specific kind of yeast called Candida albicans causes most yeast infections. These yeast infections are easily treatable.
If you’re having recurring yeast infections or problems getting rid of a yeast infection with conventional treatment, then a different version of Candida might be the cause. A lab test can identify what type of Candida you have.
Yeast infections are simple to diagnose. Your doctor will ask about your medical history. This includes whether you’ve had yeast infections before. They may also ask if you’ve ever had an STI.
Depending on what your doctor sees, the next step may be to collect some cells from your vagina. These cells go to a lab for examination. Lab tests are usually ordered for women who have yeast infections on a regular basis or for infections that won’t go away.
Each yeast infection is different, so your doctor will suggest a treatment that’s best for you. Treatments are generally determined based on the severity of your symptoms.
For simple yeast infections, your doctor will usually prescribe a one-to-three–day regimen of an antifungal cream, ointment, tablet, or suppository. These medications can be in either a prescription or and over-the-counter (OTC) form.
Common medications include:
- butoconazole (Gynazole)
- clotrimazole (Lotrimin)
- miconazole (Monistat)
- terconazole (Terazol)
- fluconazole (Diflucan)
Women with simple yeast infections should follow up with their doctors to make sure the medicine has worked.
You’ll also need a follow-up visit if your symptoms return within two months.
If you recognize that you have a yeast infection, you can also treat yourself at home with OTC products.
Your doctor will more than likely treat your yeast infection as if it were a severe or complicated case, if you:
- have severe redness, swelling, and itching that leads to sores or tears in your vaginal tissue
- have had more than four yeast infections in a year
- have an infection caused by Candida other than Candida albicans
- are pregnant
- have uncontrolled diabetes or a weak immune system from medication
- are HIV-positive
Possible treatments for severe or complicated yeast infections include:
- 14-day cream, ointment, tablet, or suppository vaginal treatment
- two or three doses of fluconazole (Diflucan)
- long-term prescription of fluconazole (Diflucan) taken once a week for six weeks or long-term use of a topical antifungal medication
You can try to treat vaginal yeast infections with natural remedies if you’d like to avoid taking prescription medication, but these aren’t as effective or reliable as the indicated medications. Some popular natural remedies include:
- coconut oil
- tea tree oil cream
- boric acid vaginal suppositories
- plain yogurt taken orally or inserted into the vagina
Always make sure your hands are clean before applying creams or oils to your vagina.
You may also want to talk to a doctor before trying natural remedies. This is important because:
- If your symptoms are due to something other than a simple yeast infection, your doctor can help diagnose your condition.
- Some herbs can interact with medications you may be taking or can cause other unintended side effects.
- eating a well-balanced diet
- eating yogurt or taking supplements with lactobacillus
- wearing natural fibers such as cotton, linen, or silk
- washing underwear in hot water
- replacing feminine products frequently
- wearing tight pants, pantyhose, tights, or leggings
- using feminine deodorant or scented tampons or pads
- sitting around in wet clothing, especially bathing suits
- sitting in hot tubs or taking frequent hot baths
Often you probably know exactly what led to your yeast infection. For example, some women experience these infections every time they take antibiotics.
By recognizing your own risk factors, you can prevent future infections.