Vaginal yeast infections are very common – 3 out of 4 women experience at least one yeast infection in their lifetimes. Yeast is a fungus that normally lives in small amounts in the vagina, along with other types of bacteria. Healthy vaginas contain balanced mixes of both yeast and bacteria: the bacteria normally prevent the overgrowth of yeast. However, disruptions can affect the balance, leading to an overgrowth of yeast, causing a yeast infection.
There are a few factors that can cause an overgrowth of yeast. First, use of antibiotics can change your vaginal pH and decrease the amount of bacteria in your vagina, allowing more yeast to grow. This does not mean the antibiotics should be avoided – it is important to take antibiotics prescribed by your doctor. Changes in hormone levels, such as in pregnancy and the use of birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy, lead to higher estrogen levels that can cause yeast infections. Douching can also lead to yeast infections as it upsets the natural balance of yeast and bacteria in the vagina. Other factors include diabetes and conditions affecting the immune system. A yeast infection can also be sexually transmitted.
The symptoms of yeast infections include itching and irritation in the vagina, especially on the vulva, redness and swelling of the vulva, burning sensations during urination or intercourse, other vaginal pain and soreness, and thick, white, odor-free vaginal discharge that looks like cottage cheese. See your gynecologist if you are experiencing any of these symptoms.
Eating a balanced diet, controlling diabetes, and practicing good genital hygiene can all help prevent a yeast infection. For good genital hygiene, it is important to keep your vaginal area clean, always wipe from front to back, change pads and tampons often, do not use scented feminine products, and do not douche. Also, it is important to wear cotton underwear and change out of a wet bathing suit as soon as possible – both of these will help keep your vagina dry and won’t expose your vagina to extended periods of warmth and moisture, which can cause bacterial imbalances.
Having an occasional yeast infection is normal. The infection is treated easily with antifungal medication prescribed by your doctor.