What Are Yeast Infections?
Yeast naturally lives on the skin and in the mouth, gut, and vagina. They are part of the microbiota of “good” germs that keep people healthy. But when these microscopic, single-celled organisms run rampant, they can trigger an infection—and some very unpleasant symptoms.
A yeast infection is a treatable medical condition caused by an overgrowth of yeast in the body. A weakened immune system, certain health conditions, some lifestyle habits, and antibiotics may up your risk of developing a yeast infection.
The most common cause of yeast infections is a fungus called Candida albicans. This candida fungus is responsible for “candidiasis” infections of the vagina, mouth, and skin.
“Yeast infection” is the term typically used to describe vaginal candidiasis. At some point in their lives, three out of every four women will experience vaginal candidiasis. But vaginal yeast infections are not the only type of infection caused by an overgrowth of yeast. When C. albicans proliferates in the mouth or throat, it’s called thrush or oral candidiasis. This condition mostly affects young babies, elderly adults, and people with weakened immune systems. Candida overgrowth in babies can also cause diaper rash.
Signs and symptoms of yeast infections
Vaginal yeast infections are irritating and uncomfortable. Symptoms of yeast infections in women can include itching and burning. Women may notice some redness and swelling of the vulva. Sometimes women with yeast infections also experience pain with urination or while having sex.
Yeast infections typically produce a thick, white vaginal discharge that’s often described as having a curd-like consistency that resembles cottage cheese. The discharge should not have a strong odor. (A foul smell may signal the presence of a bacterial infection or sexually transmitted disease.)
Yeast infections can range in severity. Some women diagnose themselves based on symptoms, especially if they have experienced a yeast infection in the past. Over-the-counter treatments make it possible to initiate treatment without seeing a doctor. But if you’re uncertain whether or not you have a yeast infection, public health officials stress the importance of meeting with your doctor first for an accurate diagnosis. Other vaginal infections (such as bacterial vaginosis) and some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) may have similar symptoms, but require different treatment. Left untreated, these infections can cause other health problems. What’s more, repeated use of antifungal medicines when you don’t have a yeast infection may make yeast resistant to treatment in the future.
Signs of yeast infections include:
- Thick white discharge
- Redness and swelling of the vagina and vulva
- Pain during sex
- Pain with urination
What causes yeast infections?
Yeast naturally lives on the skin and in the body of humans. But when the body produces too much yeast, leading to an overgrowth, infection can occur.
Women of all ages can get vaginal yeast infections, but this uncomfortable condition is more common during a woman’s childbearing years. Risk for infection may be greater when a woman is pregnant or using hormonal birth control with higher levels of estrogen, since hormonal changes may upset the balance of yeast and bacteria in the vagina. Some women may also find that they are more susceptible to yeast infections around their menstrual periods.
Taking antibiotics can increase a woman’s risk of getting a yeast infection. Antibiotics kill bacteria that keep the vagina healthy and prevent an overgrowth of yeast.
Women with compromised immune systems are also more likely to develop a yeast infection. And women who have diabetes or uncontrolled blood sugar are also at higher risk, since excess sugar can fuel the growth of yeast.
Douches and vaginal sprays don’t help yeast infections. In fact, these products can make symptoms worse by removing the “good” bacteria that help prevent yeast infections and keep Candida in check.
Yeast infections pictures
How do you know if you have a yeast infection? Yeast thrives in warm, moist areas of the body, such as the mouth, throat, vagina, groin, and buttocks. Signs of infection vary by body part.
Women with vaginal yeast infections can have swelling and redness in the vaginal area accompanied by a thick, white discharge. When yeast grows in the mouth or throat, white or yellow patches, called thrush, can appear on the tongue or cheeks. A yeast diaper rash causes a bright red rash bordered by red pimples or pus-filled bumps and surrounded by smaller “satellite” patches of rash.
Men get yeast infections, too, but not nearly as frequently as women. Male yeast infections cause inflammation of the head of the penis and a red, itchy rash.
1. Vaginal yeast infection: A thick, white, cottage cheese-like discharge is a common symptom of vaginal yeast infections.
2. Male yeast infection: Yeast infections in men may cause the head of the penis to become red, itchy and inflamed.
3. Thrush: White or yellow patches appear on the tongue or in the mouth, and the corners of the mouth may be cracked.
4. Yeast diaper rash: A diaper rash caused by yeast tends to be bright red. It may also have scaly patches or pus-filled pimples.
How are yeast infections diagnosed?
Vaginal yeast infections are often self-diagnosed based on symptoms and medical history. A woman who gets a yeast infection every time she takes an antibiotic, for example, may suspect yeast is the culprit of her symptoms. However, women may self-diagnose themselves incorrectly; other vaginal infections such as bacterial vaginosis may present similar symptoms, so it’s a good idea to call your doctor before reaching for an over-the-counter treatment, especially if you’ve never had a yeast infection before.
A woman who sees her doctor about vaginal symptoms can expect to have a pelvic exam. The doctor will look for swelling and discharge. He or she may use a cotton swab to get a sample of vaginal secretions for examination under a microscope. That test can tell your doctor whether there is an overgrowth of yeast.
Oral candidiasis, or thrush, is usually diagnosed based on symptoms (like white or yellow patches on the tongue or in the mouth; cracks in the corner of the mouth; redness; and pain). Your doctor may take a sample for examination.
When to see a doctor
If you’ve never had a vaginal yeast infection before but believe you’re having symptoms of one, call your doctor. He or she can conduct a pelvic exam and take a sample of your vaginal discharge to determine whether or not you have an overgrowth of Candida and prescribe the right treatment.
Even if you think your vaginal infection is due to an overgrowth of yeast, it’s smart to speak with your doctor first. The discomfort you’re having could be caused by something entirely different, and starting medication for a yeast infection incorrectly could delay your treatment. If you are pregnant, see a doctor before starting any treatment. And consult your health care provider if your symptoms are not improving after treatment.
Yeast infection treatments
How do you treat a yeast infection? In most cases, antifungal medicines are the go-to remedy.
Yeast infection creams, ointments, and suppositories are available either over-the-counter (without a prescription) or with a prescription. These treatments are inserted into the vagina and are effective for most women with mild-to-moderate yeast infections who use them as directed. Depending on the product, treatment typically lasts one, three, or seven days. Some doctors may recommend a single dose of oral antifungal medicine, such as fluconazole (Diflucan), to treat the infection.
Women with recurrent or severe vaginal yeast infections; diabetes; compromised immune systems; infections caused by a species of yeast other than C. albicans; or women taking medications that suppress their immune systems (such as corticosteroids) are at risk of developing “complicated” vaginal yeast infections. These women may require treatment over a longer period of time, usually seven to 14 days. In addition, “maintenance” yeast infection medication may be recommended to prevent future infections. Doctors often prescribe a weekly dose of fluconazole (Diflucan) taken for six months.
Note: If you have sex while using these antifungal products, they may not provide effective contraception or protection against sexually transmitted diseases. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says oils in these creams and suppositories can weaken latex in condoms and diaphragms.
Some health care providers may recommend home remedies for yeast infections. There’s some evidence suggesting that Lactobacillus acidophilus (a type of bacteria found in yogurt) and other probiotics help restore beneficial bacteria. In one small study, women who ate yogurt that contained L. acidophilus had fewer infections over time. In other small studies, vaginal use of probiotic tablets seemed to be helpful in preventing future infections. However, no large controlled trials involving yogurt or other probiotics have been conducted.
Small laboratory studies suggest that essential oils, such as tea tree oil, may have antifungal properties, but there’s a lack of evidence to support these natural remedies for yeast infections.
Medications for yeast infections:
- Clotrimazole: Available as a one-, three-, or seven-day suppository or three- or seven-day cream.
- Miconazole: Available as a cream administered three or seven days or suppositories used one, three, or seven days.
- Tioconazole: A single applicator of ointment.
- Butoconazole: A single applicator of cream.
- Terconazole: Requires a prescription. Available as a three- or seven-day cream or three-day suppository.
- Fluconazole (Diflucan): A prescription yeast infection medication taken by mouth.
Are yeast infections contagious?
Yeast already live on and in your body. These tiny organisms cause infection when their populations grow out of control.
Lots of factors make women vulnerable to these infections, including hormonal shifts or changes in the acidic balance of the vagina due to a host of factors, including pregnancy, uncontrolled blood sugar, and use of antibiotics.
There is some evidence that it might be possible to contract a yeast infection from a sexual partner, but it is uncommon.
Yeast infections in men
Can men get yeast infections? The answer is yes, although they do so much less frequently than women.
In men, a yeast infection may be called penile candidiasis or balanitis. Men are more likely to develop a yeast infection if they are uncircumcised.
The risk of infection is greater among men with diabetes. Poor hygiene, use of antibiotics, or a weakened immune system may also be contributing factors. Men whose female partners have a yeast infection may be at greater risk of developing an infection.
Male yeast infection symptoms involve the penis. The tip can get red, inflamed, and rashy. The infection can cause itching, pain, or burning. There may be a cottage cheese-like discharge under the foreskin.
Yeast infections during pregnancy
Talk to your doctor before using any yeast infection treatment when pregnant. Topical antifungal medications, such as clotrimazole or miconazole, are considered safe for use during pregnancy. Experts advise against taking oral antifungal medication, such as fluconazole (Diflucan), during pregnancy.
How do you get yeast infections?
Yeast infections occur when the normal balance of yeast on the skin and in the body becomes thrown off. That’s when yeast can proliferate and cause infection.
Vaginal yeast infections may be set off by hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy, during breastfeeding, or around menstrual periods, for example. Taking hormones or birth control pills with greater levels of estrogen can also upset the balance of yeast in the vagina.
Blood-sugar spikes due to diabetes or uncontrolled blood sugar can fuel an overgrowth of yeast.
You can also get a yeast infection after taking antibiotics, since these medications kill both “bad” bacteria and “good” bacteria that keep yeast in check. Taking corticosteroids poses a risk because these medications suppress the immune system, making it difficult to fight off infections.
Women with weakened immune systems (such as due to HIV) have an increased risk of developing vaginal yeast infections.
Douching is a risk factor for infection because it can strip away “good” bacteria that protect against yeast overgrowth.
Since yeast love warm, moist environments, wearing tight clothing can boost the risk for infection.
There’s evidence to suggest that a yeast infection may be able to spread between sexual partners, but it’s rare. Yeast infections are not considered a sexually transmitted disease. In men—especially uncircumcised men—yeast infections can cause a rash on the head of the penis.
Recurring and chronic yeast infections
- Defined as four or more vaginal yeast infections in a year
- Affects a small percentage of women
- Caused by Candida albicans or non-C. albicans yeast
- May require longer courses of treatment and maintenance medication
Yeast that collects in the mouth or throat is called oral candidiasis or thrush. Oral yeast infections occur when there’s a shift in the normal balance of microbes in the oral cavity, leading to an overgrowth of yeast. Taking antibiotics, for example, may kill the beneficial bacteria that prevent yeast from proliferating.
Oral yeast infections often affect babies under one year of age because their immune systems are not fully developed or may be weakened after receiving antibiotics for a bacterial infection. (Babies with thrush may also develop a yeast diaper rash.)
Healthy adults don’t typically get thrush, but elderly folks and people with weakened immune systems are at risk. Chronic thrush may be a sign of an immune deficiency, such as HIV.
Taking antibiotics, wearing dentures, having a health condition such as diabetes, undergoing treatment for cancer, or having dry mouth are also associated with increased risk of thrush.
Oral thrush can cause white or yellow patches on the tongue, mouth, or throat. Underneath those patches, the skin may be red and sore. It can cause cracks to appear at the corners of the mouth.
Oral thrush is usually treated with antifungal medication. Options include prescription lozenges and liquids or antifungal pills. The type of yeast infection medicine and duration of therapy may depend on the severity of symptoms, as well as the patient’s age and health.
Yeast infections in babies
Diaper dermatitis, or diaper rash, is extremely common in babies. Some diaper rashes are due to skin irritations caused by tight, wet, or dirty diapers. However, a rash that persists may be due to an overgrowth of Candida yeast.
Candida thrives in moist, warm areas of the body. Babies whose diaper area is not kept clean and dry or who have more frequent stools are at greater risk of developing a yeast infection diaper rash, as are babies taking antibiotics or whose breastfeeding mothers are taking these medicines.
When yeast is the culprit of a diaper rash, it will have a distinctive appearance. It usually appears on baby’s bottom, genital area, or both, particularly in the folds of the skin. The rash itself is bright red, raised, and bordered by small red bumps. Usually there are smaller red patches of skin surrounding the main rash.
Yeast diaper rash must be treated with a prescription antifungal cream, such as nystatin, miconazole, ketoconazole, or a steroid ointment, such as hydrocortisone.