According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), vaginal yeast infections are caused by the fungus Candida. Candida typically co-exists on, and in, the human body without causing a problem but in some cases it multiplies, leading to Candida overgrowth or a fungal infection. When a fungal infection occurs inside the vagina, it is medically referred to as vaginal candidiasis.
What Is Candida?
Candida is the overall genus of yeasts (or fungi) that cause fungal infections called candidiasis. According to the CDC, there are more than 20 species of Candida that can cause infections in humans. The most common is Candida albicans.
Vaginal Yeast Infection Symptoms
What are the symptoms of a yeast infection in a woman? If you’ve never experienced a vaginal yeast infection before, check your symptoms with those listed below, and see your doctor for an examination. Common vaginal yeast infection symptoms include:
- Vaginal itch
- Vaginal soreness
- Thick vaginal discharge, similar in consistency to cottage cheese
- Burning sensation around the vaginal opening, irritated by urine
- Redness in or around the vagina
- Pain or discomfort during sexual contact
- Symptoms that tend to worsen the longer you have a yeast infection
Vaginal Yeast Infection Causes
How did I get a yeast infection? Generally speaking, vaginal yeast infections are caused when the healthy bacteria in your vagina is overcome by Candidas albicans or another Candidas species, causing an imbalance. The following conditions are associated with an increased risk of developing vaginal yeast infections:
- Impaired immune system
- Use of immunosuppressant drugs
- Steroid use and abuse
- Antibiotic use
- Increased estrogen levels due to hormones and medications
- Hormonal contraceptives including birth control pills
- Sexual activity
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Hot, humid weather
Conventional Treatments for Vaginal Yeast Infections
Can a yeast infection go away on its own? Typically, no. Vaginal yeast infections likely will require some sort of intervention in the form of an over-the-counter medication or a prescription.
How long does a yeast infection last? It really depends on the severity of infection, how you treat it, and how quickly you treat it.
If you have an underlying condition that is making you more susceptible to fungal infections including thrush, vaginal yeast infections, and cutaneous candidiasis, the infections can be difficult to cure, and infections may recur frequently. The first time you experience vaginal yeast infection symptoms, see your doctor for a proper diagnosis and to rule out a sexually transmitted disease, bacterial vaginosis, and allergies before self-medicating with an over-the-counter (OTC) vaginal yeast infection medication.
Most vaginal yeast infections respond well to OTC yeast infection medications when directions on the packaging are followed precisely and when a yeast infection is treated promptly. There are scores of yeast infection creams and suppositories available including:
- Butoconazole (Femstat): An OTC antifungal vaginal yeast infection cream that reduces itching, burning, and discharge by stopping the growth of the fungus.
- Clotrimazole (Gyne-Lotrimin): An OTC antifungal cream inserted into the vagina for 3 to 7 days, and it is applied topically around the vagina twice a day for 7 days to kill the fungus.
- Miconazole (Monistat and Vagistat-1): An OTC medication available in a vaginal cream or an oral tablet. If symptoms do not improve within a week, consult your doctor.
For more severe infections or if you want to know how to get rid of a yeast infection in 24 hours, you will need to talk to your doctor about the powerful antifungal drug available by prescription only—Fluconazole.
Fluconazole (Diflucan) is an oral yeast infection pill typically prescribed in a single dose for serious or recurrent vaginal yeast infections, thrush, candida esophagitis, candida infections in the digestive tract, and cryptococcal meningitis. Fluconazole is also prescribed to patients receiving radiation treatment for cancer and to bone marrow transplant recipients. This antifungal medicine interacts with many medications. Be sure to speak to your doctor about all prescription and OTC medications as well as any supplements you take before using Fluconazole or Diflucan.
Natural Remedies for Vaginal Yeast Infections
Some complementary health professionals encourage a “candida cleanse“ that eliminates foods with yeast, refined sugar, white flour, and cheese to cure a yeast infection at home. But, Brent A. Mauer, M.D. from the Mayo Clinic states that there is little scientific evidence and no clinical trials to support a candida cleanse. Dr. Mauer does note, however, that removing processed foods from your diet may improve how you feel.
With that said, there are natural home remedies you can employ to help you manage symptoms, balance bacteria, and boost your immune system.
1. Eat Probiotic-Rich Foods and Take a Probiotic Supplement
Yeast infections, including vaginal yeast infections, are caused when the friendly bacteria is overwhelmed by harmful fungus. Probiotics can help to restore order and balance to your system. Kefir, yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, and sauerkraut are all great options for increasing the healthy bacteria in your body.
2. Boost Your Immune System with Vitamins
The top way to naturally boost your immune system is through raising levels of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids in your body. Of course, vitamin C is the first vitamin that comes to mind to aid the immune system, but other nutrients play just as important a role in immune system health.
Zinc, for example, fights free radicals and may fight infections while decreasing oxidative stress in the body. A vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of developing infections and increasing vitamin D levels through food and sunshine may strengthen the immune system.
But one of the real stars for immune system health are amino acids. Researchers from Canada have identified that the health of the intestine and the gut-associated lymphoid tissue, are vital to the immune system and that amino acids are essential for optimizing immune function. The authors of the study identify glutamine, glutamate, and arginine as primary amino acids for immune system health and say that methionine, cysteine, and threonine may provide support as well.
3. Avoid Food Allergens
When your body is under attack from a virus, bacteria, or fungus, it is essential to remove foods from your diet that further weaken your overall health. Food intolerances and allergies cause the immune system to react; with a vaginal yeast infection, you need your immune system focused on the infectious invader, not a food.
4. Add Coconut Oil to Your Diet and Apply It to Your Skin!
Coconut oil contains powerful antimicrobial properties, and researchers have found that coconut oil fights several strains of candida, in some cases as well as fluconazole does. A laboratory study published in the Journal of Medicinal Foods showed that Candida albicans was the most susceptible yeast species to coconut oil in the trial.
Adding coconut oil to your diet is easy—swap out butter and other oils for coconut oil, and aim for at least 1 tablespoon a day. You can also apply coconut oil around your vagina to fight the fungus externally. But please don’t fall prey to bad advice online—never put coconut oil on a tampon and insert it into your vagina—that is just a bad idea!
How to Prevent Vaginal Yeast Infections
Most vaginal yeast infections are preventable when they aren’t part of a more systemic imbalance in your body. Here are the best ways to prevent common vaginal yeast infections.
1. Keep Skin Clean and Dry
Fungus thrives in areas that are warm and damp, including skin folds, between the legs, and the vagina. After a shower or workout, be sure to dry yourself completely. If you live in an area with high humidity, consider standing in front of a fan or using your hair dryer on its coolest setting to speed drying.
2. Wear Clothing That Breathes and Wicks Away Moisture
Pantyhose, tight underwear and pants, and clothes that trap moisture against your body can cause fungus to thrive! When you must wear tight clothes or clothes made from polyester or other non-breathable fabrics, change out of them as soon as possible to keep fungus from growing.
3. Manage Blood Sugar Levels
If you have type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes, do your best to avoid dramatic spikes and falls in your blood sugar. A low-glycemic diet may help to keep your blood glucose levels steady and limit the sugar the fungus in your system needs to thrive. When you have a vaginal yeast infection, aim for eating low GI foods primarily, and add a few medium GI foods from time to time. The key is to eliminate high GI foods including potatoes, white flour, white rice, and refined sugars.
4. Change Sanitary Pads and Tampons Frequently
During your menstrual cycle, when you are more susceptible to a yeast infection due to hormonal fluctuations, it is important to change tampons and sanitary pads frequently. Do your best to stay as clean and dry as possible, using gentle soaps and cleansers that won’t disrupt the friendly bacteria in your vagina.
5. Don’t Douche
Douches are not the solution to fight a vaginal infection! In fact, they often target the healthy bacteria that manages your vagina’s overall health and keeps fungus or harmful bacteria from taking up residence in your vagina.
6. Wipe from Front to Back After a Bowel Movement
Wiping from front to back after a bowel movement is perhaps one of the most effective ways to protect yourself against a vaginal yeast infection. Fungus and bacteria live in the bowel, and they can spread to the vagina if you aren’t careful.
Where Else Can Yeast Infections Strike?
Yeast infections aren’t limited to just the vagina—in fact, yeast infections can occur virtually anywhere in the body. According to Harvard Medical School, yeast infections or candidiasis can affect the following body parts.
A yeast infection of the mouth and throat is called thrush. Signs of thrush include irritation and white patches around the lips, inside the cheeks, on the tongue, and the palate. Generally, thrush is not painful, but if the infection worsens it may cause areas of the mouth to become red and inflamed.
When a yeast infection spreads from the mouth to the esophagus, it is called Esophagitis candida. Esophagitis can make it difficult or painful to swallow, and it may even cause chest pain or pain behind the sternum.
Skin yeast infections are called cutaneous candidiasis. Cutaneous candidiasis can occur under breasts, between the legs and toes, in folds of skin, and as diaper rash. The symptoms of skin yeast infections include a foul odor and skin that is tender to the touch, itchy, red, moist, and possibly weepy. Athlete’s foot, jock itch, candidiasis of the nails, and diaper rash fall into this category.
When a fungal infection invades the bloodstream it is called deep candidiasis, invasive candidiasis, or systemic candidiasis. Deep candidiasis is a severe infection that may require hospitalization for intravenous delivery of antifungal medications. Fungi can enter the bloodstream and travel to the heart, brain, eyes, and bones. The fungus enters the body through surgical wounds, catheters, ventilation tubes, or tracheostomy sites. The symptoms of this severe fungal infection include unexplained fever, shock, and multiple organ failure.
Vaginal Yeast Infection Precautions
What will happen if a yeast infection is left untreated? The infection will likely worsen, and if you scratch your skin, other infections may develop due to bacteria or even sexually transmitted diseases.
Consult with your doctor if you experience recurrent yeast infections to determine if hormone imbalances, diabetes, sexually transmitted diseases, or medications may be making you more prone to yeast infections.
Yeast infections aren’t considered an STD because you can get infected without having sex—but the fungus can be transmitted during sexual contact according to the Office on Women’s Health. If you have a vaginal yeast infection or thrush, it is essential to practice safe sex and use condoms and dental dams to prevent spreading the yeast infection to your partner.