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Help, do I have a yeast infection?

4 minute read
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This common vaginal infection causes itching and irritation. Here’s why it happens — and how to find quick relief.

Lauren Bedosky

By Lauren Bedosky

Your vagina is suddenly super itchy, and you notice a thick white discharge in your underwear. What’s going on? You might have a fungal infection called vaginal candidiasis, more commonly known as a yeast infection.

Learn what causes yeast infections and how to feel better — fast.

Symptoms of a yeast infection

Vaginal candidiasis is an infection caused by a type of yeast called candida. The yeast normally lives inside the vagina without causing issues. But sometimes, changes to the environment inside the vagina cause candida to multiply and outnumber other microorganisms. The result is a vaginal yeast infection.

If you’re a woman, chances are good that you’ll get one at some point. In fact, about 3 out of 4 women will have a yeast infection at some point in their life, according to the Mayo Clinic. Yeast infection symptoms often range from mild to moderate. They can include:

  • A burning sensation during intercourse or while urinating
  • Vaginal rash
  • Itching, irritation, redness and swelling in the vaginal area
  • Thick, white, odorless vaginal discharge that looks like cottage cheese
  • Watery vaginal discharge

While most cases of vaginal candidiasis are mild, some women can develop severe infections that cause extensive redness, swelling and itching. This can create tears, cracks or sores in the vaginal area, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Who has the highest risk for a yeast infection?

Any woman can develop a yeast infection. But there are several factors that may increase your chances of getting one:

  • Pregnancy. Your body doesn’t metabolize sugar as well during pregnancy. “There’s a bit more sugar running around to feed the baby that’s growing inside you,” says Michael Tahery, MD. He’s a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. That sugar also feeds the organisms in the vaginal area, increasing the risk of yeast overgrowth. Hormonal changes during pregnancy may also play a role, “but we’re not 100% sure about that,” Dr. Tahery says.

  • Diabetes. Having poorly controlled diabetes can also lead to yeast infections, thanks to excess sugar in the blood.

  • Antibiotics. Broad-spectrum antibiotics kill a range of bacteria — including healthy bacteria in your vagina. That throws off the delicate balance of bacteria and yeast, leading to an overgrowth of yeast, explains Tabitha Cranie, MD. She’s a family practice physician in St. Petersburg, Florida. The end result: a yeast infection.

  • Weakened immune system. Women with lowered immunity (such as those undergoing chemotherapy) are more likely to get yeast infections.

  • Lifestyle factors. Certain habits can boost your risk of fungal overgrowth. These include:

    • Exercising and then sitting in your sweaty clothes. The same goes for sitting in a wet swimsuit.

    • Eating foods that include high amounts of simple sugars or processed starches (such as white bread or white rice).

    • Not drinking enough water, according to Dr. Tahery.

    • Having sex. “If you have a partner who isn’t circumcised, he may have yeast under that surface that can then transmit back and forth between the couple,” says Dr. Tahery.

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How to treat a yeast infection

Call your OB-GYN if you suspect you have a yeast infection. Your doctor may perform a pelvic exam and send a sample of vaginal fluid for testing to check for fungal overgrowth.

Yeast infections are usually treated with antifungal medicine. For mild to moderate symptoms, your doctor might recommend:

  • Short-course vaginal therapy. Antifungal medications are taken for 3 to 7 days to clear up a yeast infection. The medications are available as creams, ointments, tablets and suppositories (a dissolvable medication you insert into your vagina). Some are available over the counter (OTC) and others by prescription. Common medications include:

  • Single-dose oral medication. Fluconazole (Diflucan®) is taken just once, by mouth. But it’s not recommended if you’re pregnant.

What if your yeast infection doesn’t go away?

Self-treating with an OTC antifungal medication may offer quick symptom relief if you can’t get an appointment with your doctor right away, says Dr. Tahery. You can also try an OTC medication if you’ve had yeast infections in the past and recognize the symptoms.

But it’s always best to see your provider (virtually or in person) if:

  • Your symptoms don’t get better after treatment or if your symptoms return within 3 months. You may have a urinary tract infection (UTI). There is a bit of overlap between the symptoms of a UTI and a yeast infection, says Dr. Tahery. UTIs are usually treated with an antibiotic.

  • You’re not sure whether you have a yeast infection or some other kind of vaginal infection.

  • Your symptoms are severe. Your doctor might prescribe a stronger medication.

Lifestyle changes that can help

In addition to treating your infection, it’s important to address any lifestyle factors that may be causing a yeast overgrowth. Consider:

  • Wearing underwear and pantyhose that don’t fit too tightly
  • Changing out of sweaty clothes or wet swimsuits immediately after exercising or swimming
  • Avoiding unnecessary antibiotic use
  • Keeping blood sugar within a healthy range
  • Limiting alcohol

Bottom line: Vaginal yeast infections are downright uncomfortable — painful, even. You can find quick relief with an OTC antifungal cream or suppository. But be sure to follow up with your doctor to ensure that you’re getting the treatment you need.

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Additional sources
Yeast infection overview: Mayo Clinic (2021). "Yeast infection (vaginal)"
Severe infection symptoms: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). "Vaginal candidiasis"