Vaginal Candidiasis or most commonly known as vaginal yeast infection is caused by an overgrowth of a yeast (a type of fungus), Candida albicans, that normally resides in your vagina. 

Your internal reproductive system consists of the vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries. The vagina is an elastic, muscular canal with a soft, flexible lining that connects your uterus (an inverted pear-shaped muscular organ) to the outside world. The vagina is the tube between your vulva and the cervix. The vulva is the outer part of the female genitals and the cervix is the lower part of the uterus. 

Vaginal health is an important part of your overall health. Vaginal problems can affect your fertility, desire for sex, and can hinder routine activities. Common types of vaginal problems that you might encounter include sexual problems, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), vaginal yeast infection, and in some cases, vaginal cysts.

Vaginal infections are very common in India. Studies show that more than 90% of women experience one or more kinds of vaginal infections.

Most women experience a yeast infection once during their lifetime and it presents with irritation, inflammation, itching, and painful white discharge from the vagina.

What is a vaginal yeast infection?

A healthy vagina contains bacteria and some yeast cells. But when the balance of bacteria and yeast changes, the yeast cells can multiply. This causes intense itching, swelling, and irritation, leading to vaginal yeast infection, also known as yeast vaginitis, candidal vaginitis, or candidal vulvovaginitis. 

Treating a vaginal yeast infection can relieve symptoms within a few days. In more severe cases, it may take up to two weeks.

Vaginal yeast infections aren’t considered a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Sexual contact can spread it, but women who aren’t sexually active can also get them. Once you get a yeast infection, you’re also more likely to get another one.

What causes a vaginal yeast infection?

Your vagina consists of millions of microorganisms, mostly healthy bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The fungus Candida is a naturally occurring microorganism in the vaginal area. A bacteria named Lactobacillus keeps the growth of Candida in check. But if there’s an imbalance in your system due to excessive stress or extreme sexual activity, the functioning of these bacteria is hampered. As a result, this leads to an overgrowth of yeast, which causes the symptoms of vaginal yeast infections.

Several factors can cause a vaginal yeast infection including:

  • Antibiotics decrease the amount of Lactobacillus, also called “good bacteria” in the vagina, resulting in an overgrowth of yeast.

  • Pregnancy disrupts the pH balance of your vagina due to hormone changes, resulting in infections.

  • Uncontrolled diabetes can cause an increase in your blood sugar levels. This sugar spike can result in an overgrowth of yeast.

  • A weak immune system tends to avoid fighting yeast overgrowth or disease-causing fungi, thus, increasing the chances of vaginal infections.

  • Poor eating habits, including a lot of sugary foods, can spike your blood sugar levels and cause inflammation.

  • Wearing tight underwear, jeans or a swimsuit increases the heat and moisture in your vaginal area. These conditions favour the growth of yeast, leading to infections.

  • Hormonal imbalance can either spike or reduce your estrogen (primary female sex hormone) levels. High levels of estrogen cause overgrowth of Candida fungi.

  • Stress and lack of sleep decrease your overall immunity and thus, increases your susceptibility to infections.

What are the symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection?

Vaginal yeast infections have a common set of symptoms, such as: 

  • Itching/ swelling around the vagina or vulva.

  • A burning sensation during urination or sexual intercourse.

  • Pain during sexual intercourse.

  • Soreness of the vagina.

  • Redness/irritation/rashes in the vagina or on the lips of the vagina.

  • A change in the color, odor, or amount of vaginal discharge (a mixture of cells, liquid, and bacteria that is constantly produced by the vagina and the cervix for lubrication and protection of the vagina).

  • Whitish-grey and clumpy (thick or excessive) vaginal discharge.

Usually, the length of time your yeast infection is left untreated has a direct impact on how severe your symptoms may become.

How are vaginal yeast infections diagnosed?

Vaginal yeast infections are simple to diagnose. Your doctor will ask about your medical history. This includes whether you’ve had vaginal yeast infections before. They may also ask if you’ve ever had an episode of STI earlier. 

The next step is a pelvic exam. The doctor will examine your vaginal walls and cervix. They’ll also look at the surrounding area for external signs of infection. Depending on what your doctor sees, the next step may be to collect some cells from your vagina (commonly through a culture test) or prescribe suitable medication.

How to treat a vaginal yeast infection?

Each yeast infection is different, so your doctor will suggest a treatment that’s best for you. 

Treatments are generally determined based on the severity of your symptoms.

  • For a simple vaginal yeast infection, your doctor will usually prescribe a one-to-three-day regimen of an antifungal cream, ointment, tablet, or a vaginal suppository (medication that is inserted into the vagina to be broken down and absorbed by the body). These medications can be in either a prescription or an over-the-counter (OTC) form.

  • Women with simple yeast infections should follow up with their doctors to make sure that the medicine has worked. 

You’ll also need a follow-up visit if your symptoms return within two months. 

How to prevent a vaginal yeast infection?

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle to stay stress-free and to boost your immune system. Eat a well-balanced diet including probiotics like yogurt. 

  • Take supplements to promote the growth of Lactobacillus to fend off an abnormal growth of yeast.

  • Wear natural fibers such as cotton, linen, or silk. Wash your underwear daily in hot water and dry it in the sun before using it again. This will help in maintaining your vaginal health. Also, remember to change out wet bathing suits and damp clothes as soon as possible.

  • Do not replace or use new bath and feminine products frequently. Avoid using feminine deodorants or scented tampons frequently. The chemical compositions of different products can hamper the balance of bacteria and yeast in your vagina, causing candidiasis. Avoid wearing tight pants, pantyhose, tights, or leggings to reduce heat and moisture buildup in your vaginal area.

  • Avoid douching. Douching is washing or cleaning out the inside of the vagina with water or other mixtures of fluids. Most douches available in the market can cause irritation, inflammation, redness, and itching and result in infections.

Vaginal Candidiasis can be easily treated in most people. Preventive measures and early treatment are the way ahead. Consult your gynaecologist if your symptoms persist or the infection keeps recurring.  

Disclaimer: This article is written by the Practitioner for informational and educational purposes only. The content presented on this page should not be considered as a substitute for medical expertise. Please "DO NOT SELF-MEDICATE" and seek professional help regarding any health conditions or concerns. Practo will not be responsible for any act or omission arising from the interpretation of the content present on this page.