Three out of four women will experience a yeast infection in their lifetime, and of those women, nearly half will have recurring cases. What’s more surprising is that even though yeast infections are so common, many people don’t understand what they are, what causes them, and the proper way to treat them.
A yeast infection occurs when the ratio of bacteria and yeast in the vagina is off balance. Once the yeast — a type of fungus called Candida — starts multiplying, women may begin to experience uncomfortable itching, burning and irritation in the vulva, and they may also start to produce thicker discharge.
Here’s a four-step plan for preventing and treating this common condition.
Certain health conditions can increase your risk of recurring yeast infections. Diabetes is a common example, because the yeast feeds off the higher blood sugar levels in the body; another is pregnancy, because of the increased level of estrogen (birth control pills can also spark an estrogen increase). The most common cause of yeast infections is having a weakened immune system.
“Anything that decreases your immune system — whether it be medications, an underlying medical condition, or extreme stress — can increase your risk of yeast infections,” says Dr. Gabrielle Cassir, a Toronto-based gynecologist. Ways to strengthen your immune system include getting enough sleep, having a healthy diet, exercising, maintaining a lower stress level, and being aware of which medications can be weakening — for example, corticosteroids used to treat asthma and autoimmune diseases. Gynecologist Dr. Elin Raymond also recommends avoiding antibiotics when fighting a yeast infection, because the antibiotics will kill the bacteria that help balance the level of yeast in your system.
Your vagina is sensitive, so the best way to take care of it is by keeping the area dry and not messing with its natural pH level with harsh personal hygiene products like creams and wipes. All you need to keep the area clean is water.
Raymond also recommends taking care to stay cool by sleeping without underwear and only using menstrual products while on your period (that means avoiding regular use of panty liners). When using menstrual products, she advises changing them often. You should also avoid staying in wet clothes for long periods of time. "Anything that causes heat or moisture buildup is not good,” she says.
According to Cassir, most people assume that any discomfort or itchiness in the vaginal region is a yeast infection, which isn't true.
"Sometimes you treat yourself and increase your itching or increase irritation if it's not the proper diagnosis,” she says, adding that bacterial vaginosis is commonly confused with a yeast infection. “I think it is very important to see your doctor to really confirm that what you have is a yeast infection before beginning treatment.”
For individuals with recurring infections, Cassir recommends they still visit their doctors for a quick test to confirm that it’s a yeast infection before self-treating.
Most yeast infections clear up within a week when properly treated with medication. Options for treatment include ointments, oral pills, and tablets inserted into the vagina. Cassir says she’ll prescribe the appropriate anti-fungal medication based on an individual’s preference. Both vaginal and oral regimens are effective, she says, but topical creams are more rarely prescribed as a one-day regimen because many women will need additional treatment. Most treatment plans are stretched across 3–7 days, but often one oral dose of Fluconazole is effective.
Women who experience recurring yeast infections — defined as four or more per year — should consult their doctor. There are long-term treatment plans that can help, notes Cassir.
And while there are many articles circulating online claiming that modifications in diet can help prevent and treat yeast infections — promoting natural remedies including probiotics, apple cider vinegar and garlic — both Raymond and Cassir warn that there’s no proof these at-home remedies will help.
“When it comes to these different home remedies, like eating yogurt or different probiotic products, there hasn't been enough evidence to show they work," says Cassir.
Subscribe to our newsletters for our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers.