If you’ve got a vagina, you’re at risk of a yeast infection. But that sounds a lot more dramatic than it really is. Yeast infections are extremely common, so common that you can buy medication for them over the counter. And because that’s the case, you should probably know a thing or two about recognizing and treating them. Dr. Katherine McHugh —an ob-gyn at Indiana University Health—has a comprehensive overview of everything yeast infection.
What causes a yeast infection
Yeast infections are caused by an imbalance in the vaginal flora (the natural bacteria in the vagina), and things that can cause that imbalance are change in diet, medications you may be taking that wipe out natural bacteria in the vagina (like antibiotics), or other illnesses like diabetes and autoimmune disorders that raise your risk for infection. The most common antibiotics that tend to lead to a yeast infection are those used to treat urinary tract infections, though McHugh said that's likely because doctors just prescribe those antibiotics to women more often.
A big misconception about yeast infections, according to McHugh, is that they're like STIs in that they're contagious. While a very small number of yeast infections can be shared between partners, this is rarely the case. "A yeast infection is nothing more than an overgrowth of microorganisms [called Candida] that are already present," she said.
Aside from diabetes and autoimmune disorders, women who are pregnant, use a high-estrogen form of hormonal birth control, or use douches or vaginal sprays are at higher risk for yeast infection.
McHugh said the most common complaints women with yeast infections have are thick, white discharge and itching either on a small surface area on the vagina or across the whole vulva. Other common symptoms are burning, redness and swelling of the vagina, and painful urination and pain during sex.
What yeast infections do not do is cause your vaginal discharge scent to change — that’s a common symptom of bacterial vaginosis, McHugh said. If that's going on, visit your doctor. The medication needed to treat BV is available only through a prescription.
If you think you have one
Good news! If you recognize your symptoms as those of a yeast infection, there are over-the-counter treatments available. Brands like Monistat sell anti-fungal creams and suppositories that can wipe a yeast infection out in one to three days. While there are home remedy ways to help prevent a yeast infection (things like eating yogurt, taking a probiotic and avoiding irritating scents in soaps), McHugh said that by the time you have a yeast infection, you need an actual medication.
If none of the over-the-counter options work, McHugh said it's time to see a doctor to get a single pill, prescription-strength, anti-fungal medication that knocks out a yeast infection in a day or so.
"If you still have symptoms after a few days, then you can take a second pill," McHugh said. "Some doctors will do a speculum exam and look inside the vagina to test a sample of vaginal discharge, and other doctors will do a urine sample for testing."
Because yeast infections aren't typically contagious, it's technically fine to have sex when you have one, though McHugh said most women choose not to as it can exacerbate discomfort. What you shouldn't do is try to self-treat by shoving a bunch of yogurt or probiotics inside your vagina. "That would just set you up for an infection," she said.
If you're in an endless yeast infection cycle
As McHugh mentioned, some women get stuck in a hellish cycle of constant yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis—treating BV causes a yeast infection which causes BV and so on and so forth. This isn't something you're just doomed to live with forever. McHugh said if this is happening to you, you should see an ob-gyn or pelvic health specialist. Both to rule out any other underlying issue, and see if there's another way to treat either issue to break the cycle.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.