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What Are Yeast Infections?

Learn how you can treat a yeast infection yourself and when you should see a doctor.

By
Sanaz Majd, MD,
December 23, 2010

Page 1 of 2

Kristina came to see me recently for a “cold,” and like many other women, she was embarrassed to tell me why she was really there: her nether regions had been itching for the past fifteen days—and this had never happened to her before.  Kristina tried a three-day over-the-counter anti-fungal cream for yeast infections, but it didn’t seem to help.  And she’s had a new sexual partner, so she’s been afraid to ask me in fear that it would be something “bad” that she may have contracted from her boyfriend.

Despite the fact that she’d tried an over-the-counter cream for yeast infections  that didn’t seem to work, a yeast infection was still my first thought.

What Are Yeast Infections?

Candida is a type of yeast that about fifty percent of asymptomatic women normally have colonized (meaning living) in the vagina.  The problem starts to arise when this Candida starts to grow and increase its territory within the female genital system.  When it expands its territory, it can cause intense vaginal itching, burning, pain with intercourse, and a thick, white “cottage cheese-like” vaginal discharge.  It is the culprit in about one third of the causes of abnormal vaginal discharge that I see in the clinic (not the most common cause, but definitely one of the more frequent).

What Causes Yeast Infections?

Well, first of all, just simply being a woman!  The female body parts can be quite complex--and yeast infections are just one of the benefits of being a woman.  Most women have had one.  In fact, about fifty percent of women have had one by the age of 25.

But there are a few risk factors that may predispose some women to have them more frequently than others:

  • Diabetes:  If you’ve had frequent yeast infections, please make sure that your doctor tests you for diabetes.  Yeast thrives and feeds off of high blood sugar levels.  So if you have diabetes and are getting these frequent yeast infections, it may be a sign that you need to better control your diabetes.

  • Antibiotics:  Antibiotics kill off bacteria--whether they are good or bad.  And if those good bacteria that keep the level of yeast in your vagina in check are killed off by antibiotics, well, the yeast now has a great opportunity to grow  now that the good bacteria are “out of the way.”  Another great reason why you should never take antibiotics unless you really need them.

  • Moisture:  Yeast tends to grow in areas of moisture.  Take diaper rashes, for instance.  Babies get these when they urinate and create a moist area on their skin.  Same thing goes for women!  If you tend to sweat down there, try to keep it as dry as possible.  Panty liners, tight pantyhose, and non-cotton underwear may cause extra moisture down there, so you may want to avoid those.

  • Immune Suppression:  Also, yeast tends to grow when the immune system is down.  So women with HIV or on medications that tend to suppress the immune system, like chronic steroids, may experience more yeast infections.

Kristina had decided to self-treat her recent sniffles and sore throat by taking some of that left-over Amoxicillin from her recent dental visit.  She didn’t realize that antibiotics only work with bacteria, not on a viral-causing cold, and she was ineffectively treating her cold symptoms with antibiotics without consulting her doctor.  And that is what ended up causing her yeast infection.  She was, however, relieved to find out that her yeast infection was not actually sexually transmitted.

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