Anyone who's had a yeast infection knows how uncomfortable the intense vaginal itching, irritation, and discharge can be—and most women can count themselves in this category. Three out of four will have a vaginal yeast infection at some point in their lives, according to the CDC.
Though yeast infections are very common, determining whether you actually have one isn't always easy. Symptoms can mimic other down-there conditions, such as bacterial vaginosis, or may be confused for an allergic reaction or sensitivity to a new kind of lotion, soap, or other product.
"So many women think any change in what they feel in their genitals—whether a little itching or discharge or odor—is a yeast infection," says Alyssa Dweck, MD, a gynecologist in Westchester County, NY and assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "Many times, it's not."
When an overgrowth of Candida yeasts occurs, the most common symptoms are irritation, itchiness, and a very specific type of discharge. "It's thick, white, and curd-like," says Dr. Dweck. "Sometimes the discharge can be slightly watery, but there’s usually no foul odor associated with it." (Bacterial vaginosis, on the other hand, is often described as having discharge with a "fishy" smell.)
With proper vaginal yeast infection treatments, symptoms can improve within a few days. Some infections may even go away on their own, Dr. Dweck says. In severe cases, though, women may experience swelling, redness, or painful sex and urination.
"The degree of itching and inflammation dictate how severe [the infection] is," says Dr. Dweck. "But everyone is different."
She stresses that not all vaginal itching or discharge is a sure sign of a yeast infection, and you should visit your doctor to make sure it's not a reaction to a product you're sensitive to or even an STD. This is especially important if you've never had a yeast infection before.
"You don’t want to prolong your symptoms and discomfort by treating it incorrectly," Dr. Dweck says.