By now, most women have probably experienced a yeast infection at least once in their lives.
Although this fungus lives in a woman’s vagina in small amounts, an excess of it can cause a yeast infection.
“We all have bacteria everywhere in our bodies,” says Dr. Sharon Domb, a family physician with the Sunnybrook Department of Family and Community Medicine in Toronto. “We have bacteria we can’t see or feel … and yeast is a normal vaginal pathogen.”
She adds when the body’s flora changes, or the mix of bacteria, sometimes it can lead to a growth of yeast. According to HealthLink B.C., yeast infections are caused by a type of yeast called Candida albicans.
Everyday Health notes three out of every four women will have at least one vaginal yeast infection at some point in their life, and half of all women will have more than one infection.
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And besides the genitals, the site adds, yeast infections can occur in the mouth (thrush) or on the feet (athlete’s foot).
Below, Domb breaks down everything you need to know about vaginal yeast infections.
Domb says most women will feel slightly irritated and have itching, swelling or discomfort in their vaginal areas. Some women may feel pain urinating or having sex, and Domb says a thick white discharge is also common.
“Sometimes will go away or women get medication from the drugstore,” she says, adding that often, women don’t see their doctors.
Why does it happen?
Domb says there have been several documented reasons why women develop yeast infections. These can range from using antibiotics to an imbalance in hormones to women who are of childbearing age to women on the pill.
“Antibiotics will kill off bacteria, including normal bacteria in the vagina,” she says. “It can lead to an overgrowth in yeast.”
HealthLink B.C. adds certain health issues like diabetes or HIV can also cause yeast infections.
Is it always a yeast infection?
Domb says if women see irregular discharge, they may automatically assume it’s a yeast infection. “If they haven’t had a yeast infection before, they have a hard time labelling it,” she says.
Often itching or discomfort — which can be completely normal — can also lead some women to believe they have the infection. If you have your doubts, talk to a healthcare professional.
Domb says most over-the-counter treatments can work, and sometimes, mild symptoms can go away on their own.
“Yeast infections are common during pregnancy. If you are pregnant, don’t use medicine for a yeast infection without talking to your doctor first,” HealthLink B.C. notes.
Home remedies are also common, including eating yogurt and probiotics, or even extremes like placing garlic cloves in the vagina to ward off yeast.
However, there is very little scientific evidence to show these remedies work, and Domb says you are better off with a drugstore medication.
According to Bustle, the best way to prevent yeast infections is changing up your diet and personal hygiene.
Avoid scented feminine hygiene products and soaps, as well as scented bubble baths, body washes and coloured toilet paper.
HealthLink B.C. adds avoid tight-fitting clothes — these may increase body heat and moisture in your genital area.
Talking about vaginal health
Domb says besides prevention, treatment and recognizing the symptoms, we also have to become more open talking about genital health issues, rather than ignoring it.
There are also cultural barriers that may make it harder for some young women, for example, to be open about vaginal health with their family members.
“Part of this is on the healthcare practitioner and how comfortable we make people feel,” she says. “If the patient gets a whiff you are uncomfortable about the topic, it’s going to make them uncomfortable.”
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