Is it Yeast, or Something Else?

Does your vagina have yeast?

It wasn’t that long ago that you had to visit your gynecologist if you had symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection. The creams, ointments and suppositories now available at your local drugstore used to be sold by prescription only. While this made treatment more expensive and often delayed relief, it also prevented women from misdiagnosing a vaginal infection.

Symptoms of Vaginal Yeast Infections

The symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection are well known to most women. Itching, soreness and redness around the vaginal area are sometimes accompanied by a cheese-like discharge. Although the yeast called Candida albicans is the most common cause of vaginal infections, these symptoms may present when some other microbe is to blame.

Types and Causes of Vaginal Infections

In addition to yeast overgrowth, there are two other common causes for the symptoms usually associated with a vaginal yeast infection. Certain sexually transmitted diseases may cause discharge, itching or soreness—with or without the presence of other signs of infection. Some STDs may have no outward symptoms at all, so it’s important to see your gynecologist if you have unprotected sex or if you suspect an STD.

After yeast, the second most common type of vaginal infection is bacterial vaginosis. As in the case of yeast, this type of infection may happen when the balance of beneficial bacteria is thrown off, resulting in an overgrowth of harmful microbes. In addition to signs usually associated with yeast overgrowth, you may experience a foul or fishy-smelling discharge.

Antifungal Creams Only Treat Yeast

The distinction between causes of your discomfort is important, because over-the-counter topical antifungal preparations won’t affect bacteria or viruses. Therefore, if you think you have a yeast infection but the cause is actually something else, you could delay getting the proper treatment. Your symptoms may or may not subside temporarily, but the underlying condition will remain and could get worse.

Treating Bacterial Vaginosis

Fortunately, it’s easier to treat bacterial vaginosis than it often is to differentiate it from one caused by yeast overgrowth. Mild cases may even resolve on their own. Your doctor may prescribe:

  • Oral antibiotics
  • Topical antibiotics in cream, ointment or suppository form
  • Daily douching with a medicated solution, usually betadine, for a set number of days

It’s important not to douche—with any solution, even plain water—without your doctor’s recommendation. Under most circumstances, the vagina cleans itself. Douching will alter both the pH and the balance of microbes in your vagina, which can actually cause an infection.

You May Still Need a Prescription

Even if your symptoms stem from a vaginal yeast overgrowth, you may still need prescription medication. Certain strains may be resistant to all or most over-the-counter preparations. Your doctor can prescribe either a prescription topical or an oral anti-fungal such as fluconazole.

Preventing Vaginal Microbial Infections

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Indeed, anyone who’s experienced a vaginal yeast or bacterial infection would most likely prefer to avoid them if possible! Healthy lifestyle choices and good personal hygiene can go a long way toward prevention.

  • Reduce sugar in your diet—yeast cells, in particular, thrive on sugar
  • Wipe from front to back, especially after a bowel movement
  • Bathe or shower regularly, but avoid harsh soaps and detergents around the vaginal area
  • Use the bathroom as soon as practical after sexual activity
  • Change out of wet swimwear or damp, sweaty clothing as soon as possible
  • Avoid so-called feminine hygiene powders, sprays and similar products

Some women appear to be predisposed to frequent vaginal infections. This may be due to lifestyle, or to physical factors such as overly large labia or an unusually bulky clitoral hood.

Oral antibiotics are notorious for causing vaginal yeast infections, because they kill beneficial bacteria and allow yeast to overgrow. If you’re prescribed antibiotics for any condition, including bacterial vaginosis, you can ask your doctor to also prescribe an antifungal to take simultaneously. This can prevent the yeast overgrowth before it begins.