Sorry to be a downer, but if you haven’t had a yeast infection yet—you’ll probably get one eventually. Three out of four women will experience one sometime in her life—and half will have two or more. “These are so common because yeast normally lives on your skin and around your vagina,” says Melissa Goist, MD, an ob-gyn at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. When something disrupts the vagina’s natural balance of healthy bacteria, yeast (aka the fungus Candida) can grow out of control. And then comes the telltale down-there itching and burning sensation that can drive you up a wall.
Whether you’ve been visited by a yeast problem once, a bunch of times, or not yet, you may be surprised by the truth about these frustrating infections. Here are the facts every woman should know.
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The symptoms can mimic other problems
One study found that as few as 11% of women who have never had a yeast infection could identify the symptoms, while other research has found that only one-third of women who thought they had a yeast infection actually did. Why the confusion?
The signs are similar to other down-there problems. If you have a yeast infection, you might notice burning, itching, pain during sex, and a thick white odorless discharge.
But if it smells fishy, it may instead be bacterial vaginosis (BV), and if you have only burning and pain during urination, that suggests a urinary tract infection. Bottom line: It can be difficult to figure out.
First-timer? Go to the doctor if you think you have one
Now you know the signs, but remember: Just because you can buy over-the-counter treatment for a yeast infection doesn’t mean you always should. The first time you experience symptoms, it’s important to see your doctor (or hit up an urgent care center if you can’t score an appointment) because if it turns out you don’t have a yeast infection, at-home treatments can make inflammation worse or not provide any relief at all, Dr. Goist says.
A doctor will be able to correctly pinpoint the problem (yeast infection or something else) then give you personalized treatment, like an Rx for the oral antifungal fluconazole as well as a topical skin cream to reduce inflammation.
After that, you’ll know exactly what to watch out for, and your doc may give you the all clear to self-treat your next one with an over-the-counter antifungal, like Monistat or generic clotrimazole.
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You don’t need products to prevent them
Gynecologists like to call the vagina a “self-cleaning oven.” That’s because it doesn’t need any help with douches, scented gels, perfumes, and other “feminine” products to stay clean. In fact, rather than helping prevent a yeast infection, these can cause an imbalance of the healthy bacteria in your vagina that makes you more susceptible to a yeast infection, explains Dr. Goist.
What to do if it happens after sex
A yeast infection is not technically a sexually transmitted infection (STI), but sex can throw off the bacterial balance in your vagina, upping your risk for a yeast overgrowth. That said, if you get what you think is a yeast infection after sex with a new partner, it’s a good idea to see your doctor, so you can rule out any potential new STIs, as well.
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The truth about wet bathing suits
You’ve probably heard hanging out in wet clothes is a recipe for disaster. Doctors often say it’s a good idea to change out of a wet suit or sweaty exercise clothes because yeast thrives in warm, wet environments. And that’s true. But it’s mostly important for women who suffer from recurrent episodes rather than the general population. “Unless you know you’re prone to yeast infections, you won’t necessarily get one by hanging out in a wet suit,” Dr. Goist says. Make changing a priority if you get them frequently, otherwise, you’re probably fine.
Switching birth control pills may make you more susceptible
Anything that alters your hormone levels—like changing to a new hormonal birth control pill (that increases your estrogen levels) or too much stress (high cortisol) is a risk factor. Other things to watch out for: taking antibiotics, which kill healthy bacteria in the vagina, allowing yeast to thrive; or having uncontrolled blood sugar levels if you have type 2 diabetes (high blood sugar can feed yeast). If any of these sound like you and you get yeast infections, come up with a plan with your doc about how to control them.