If you’re lucky, you’re among the 10% to 20% of women who have never experienced a yeast infection.
Then there’s the rest of us.
“I don’t think yeast infections should be something that causes alarm, but you still have to get them treated,” said Jain. You should also be concerned if you are experiencing more than three yeast infections in a year.
Why So Common?
The symptoms of a yeast infection aren’t fun. There’s the itching, first of all. There can be soreness. And worst of all, there’s the classic curdy white discharge that is best described as “cottage cheese.”
Unfortunately, there’s also not always a good way to prevent yeast infections. “It’s not a hygiene issue generally,” said Jain. “Most of the time, yeast infections are related to something that has disturbed the vaginal microbiome and allowed yeast microorganisms to propagate.” These microorganisms are everywhere—living on leaves and soil, for example, and on our skin.
You might have already guessed it, but the main cause of a disturbance to our vaginal microbiome is something many of us take for good reason: antibiotics. “Say a woman gets treated for strep throat or a urinary tract infection. Because these antibiotics are good at killing multiple pathogens, that includes the normal vaginal microbiome, which allows yeast to grow instead,” said Jain.
Sex is another common cause. But a surprising one is this: If you binge on Valentine’s or Halloween candy or if you are diabetic. “Yeast loves sugar,” said Jain. “So if your sugar levels are not well controlled or if you eat a lot of sugar, you may see an increase in yeast infections.”
Treating Yeast Infections
Because yeast infections are so common, over-the-counter remedies are widely available. Most are in the form of creams or suppositories that range from one-day up to seven-day preparations.
If what’s going on “down there” doesn’t seem to be responding to treatment—or if something just doesn’t seem right—it’s worth making an appointment to get checked. Your OB/GYN will do both an external and internal exam, usually taking swabs, to examine samples under a microscope to confirm the presence of yeast.
If it is a yeast infection, your doctor can prescribe stronger medications, which can take the form of a cream or a pill. While the oral medication is less messy, it works more slowly, and women on blood pressure medication should be sure to tell their doctor, since there’s the risk of a drug interaction.
A doctor’s visit can also tell you if the problem actually isn’t a yeast infection. Bacterial vaginosis, for example, also causes itching and irritation, but the discharge usually has a fishy odor. Other causes of vaginal itching are sexually transmitted diseases, post-menopausal atrophic vaginitis due to a decrease in estrogen, even an allergy or dermatitis because of a scented product you might have used around that area.
Keeping Yeast Infections Away
One delicious way to help keep yeast infections away is to eat yogurt with activated cultures, whether they are Lactobacillus bulgaricus or Streptococcus thermophilus. “Those activated cultures lower the vaginal pH, which helps keep bacteria in check,” said Jain, who advises looking for low-sugar content and low-fat yogurt options.
Women with diabetes should always make sure to keep their blood sugar under control, and it’s a good idea to limit sugar in general, especially if you’re having problems with yeast infections.
It’s worthwhile to also mention that if you are on a steroid treatment, you can also have a higher risk for yeast infections. Pregnancy is also a risk factor—although there’s not much you can do about either of these.
During warm weather, hanging out in a wet swimsuit can also encourage yeast to multiply, so change into dry clothing as soon as you can.
More Than 3 in a Year?
If you’re having more than three recurring yeast infections in a year, that is a definite sign that you should talk to your doctor. Your doctor will want to confirm that those were true yeast infections and may want to do some further investigation. “For example, we may want to check your sugar levels,” said Jain. “In some cases, frequent yeast infections can be an early sign of pre-diabetes.”
Yeast infections can also be caused by different types of yeasts, some of which are tougher to treat than others. So that’s where a peek under a microscope and a prescription-strength medication may be what you need to wipe it out.
But as is the case with many things related to your health, don’t just ignore it. “If you let it go, there could be other health consequences, such as skin breakdown and giving other bacteria an entryway into your body,” said Jain. “While they’re very common, yeast infections aren’t completely benign.”