Yeast Infections: Overview

Yeast infections are a common condition among women. Almost 75 percent of adult women develop a yeast infection at least once in their lives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This overview will provide information about causes of yeast infections, methods of treatment and ways to prevent the condition.

A yeast infection is a form of vaginitis, or inflammation of the vagina. Unlike other forms of vaginitis, such as trichomoniasis, yeast infections are not considered a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

Vaginal yeast infections primarily affect adult women, but may also affect older girls. In rare instances, yeast infections may be transmitted to men through sexual intercourse.

It is difficult to determine the percentage of women who have been affected by yeast infections because individuals do not always have recognizable symptoms and home treatment often goes unreported.

What causes yeast infections

Also known as candida vaginal infections, yeast infections are typically caused by a yeastlike fungus called candida. There are four types of candida. A variety called Candida albicans causes the majority of vaginal yeast infections.

Small amounts of candida are always present in your body, living in small numbers in the vagina, mouth and digestive tract. The fungus can infect other moist regions of the body as well, such as the skin folds and nail beds.

Normally, there is a balance of bacteria and other factors in the body that keeps candida in control. In the vagina, the acidic environment prevents an overgrowth of yeast. If your vagina becomes less acidic, the yeast can grow and cause a vaginal infection.

Several factors can promote an overgrowth of yeast in your vagina. Yeast infections are common in pregnant women because hormonal changes may increase the amount of sugar in the vaginal secretions. Girls may develop yeast infections just before they get their menstrual period for the same reason. The sugar provides nourishment for the yeast to grow. Similarly, women with uncontrolled diabetes may have an increased risk of developing yeast infections due to a higher sugar level.

Wearing tight-fitting clothing or garments (especially undergarments) made of synthetic fibers may increase the likelihood of yeast infections. If you remain in wet clothes, such as a bathing suit or exercise gear, you are also providing an environment suitable for yeast to grow.

Irritating soaps, deodorants or sprays used in the genital area may upset the acid level in the vagina and lead to a yeast infection. Certain medications, including birth control pills and antibiotics, may increase your risk of developing a yeast infection as well.

Most women can easily recognize the signs of a yeast infection, particularly if they have experienced one previously in their lives. The most common symptoms are a white vaginal discharge and vaginal itching.

When to see a doctor

Since treatments are available over the counter, it may be tempting to use those treatments without seeing a physician. However, it is important to see your physician if you are:

  • Experiencing symptoms for the first time. The symptoms of a yeast infection can also be indicative of another type of infection, such as some STDs. Proper diagnosis is important.
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding. Some treatments are not recommended for women who are (or may be) pregnant or are breastfeeding.
  • Using latex condoms and/or a diaphragm for birth control. Some treatments can interfere with these forms of birth control.
  • At risk of diabetes. Recurring yeast infections are a sign of diabetes. If you are having repeated yeast infections and have not recently been screened for this disease, you should be.

Potential complications

Yeast infections rarely result in serious problems. However, symptoms may persist if left untreated. In severe cases, an untreated yeast infection can lead to more serious conditions, such as a lethal blood infection called sepsis.

Approximately 5 percent of patients with vaginal yeast infections develop a condition called recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis (RVVC). A woman who has more than three symptomatic vaginal yeast infections over the course of one year is considered to have RVVC. If you experience RVVC, you should notify your gynecologist or primary care physician who will attempt to identify the underlying cause of the condition.

Yeast infections are a common condition. Although they can be annoying and uncomfortable, they rarely result in serious problems. With a few lifestyle changes and attention to personal hygiene, you can reduce your risk of developing vaginal yeast infections.

Last updated 24 March 2012

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