What Are Yeast Infections?

Yeast infections are common and can develop in the vagina, mouth, throat, and on the skin. Here are the symptoms, treatments, and prevention methods.

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A yeast infection is a common, treatable fungal infection that is medically known as candidiasis. It is caused by a yeast called Candida, a type of fungus.

Data suggest that more than 70% of people with a vagina have had at least one vaginal yeast infection in their lifetime. But virtually anyone can get a yeast infection, including babies and people without vaginas. That's because yeast infections can develop on not just the genitals, but also on the skin, mouth, throat, and esophagus.

Depending on what area of the body is affected, the infection can produce a range of symptoms. The infection may also be referenced by different names depending on what area it's affecting. For example, when a yeast infection affects the mouth or throat, it is commonly called thrush.

What Causes a Yeast Infection?

Candida is a yeast that naturally lives on the skin and in the mouth, throat, gut, and vagina without causing any issues. The most common species of yeast to cause yeast infections is Candida albicans. It's estimated that up to 70% of people have that specific fungus living harmlessly in their bodies.

But sometimes, the body's normal balance of germs gets disrupted by a change in its environment, which can be triggered by things like medication use or hormonal changes. When this happens, Candida can start to grow out of control, causing a yeast infection.

Risk Factors

Anyone with a vagina can get a vaginal yeast infection. But you may have a higher chance of getting a vaginal yeast infection if you:

  • Are pregnant
  • Use hormonal birth control pills
  • Have diabetes
  • Have a weakened immune system due to an illness like HIV or corticosteroid medication use
  • Have recently taken or are currently taking antibiotics

Yeast infections of the skin are more likely to develop in warm, moist creases like the armpits or groin. Risk factors include:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Antibiotics
  • Steroid therapy
  • Chemotherapy

Yeast infections in the mouth or throat are uncommon among healthy adults. More typically, they occur in babies, especially those who are younger than 1 month. Among adults, though, risk factors include:

  • Wearing dentures
  • Having diabetes, cancer, or HIV/AIDS
  • Taking antibiotics or corticosteroids, including inhaled corticosteroids for asthma
  • Having dry mouth
  • Smoking

Symptoms

Vaginal yeast infections can be uncomfortable. Some of the most common signs and symptoms include:

  • Itching and burning sensation in the vulva (the area located right outside the vagina)
  • Redness or swelling of the vulva
  • Burning or pain that gets stronger while peeing or during sex
  • Thick, lumpy, white vaginal discharge that looks like cottage cheese

Yeast infections less commonly affect the penis, but when they do, they can produce an itchy rash. A yeast infection of the skin can cause an itchy, red rash or pimple-like bumps, and a yeast infection of the mouth or throat can lead to white patches in the mouth and throat. Other signs and symptoms of oral thrush include:

  • Redness or soreness
  • Dry mouth
  • Loss of taste
  • Pain while eating or swallowing
  • Cracking and redness at the corners of the mouth

How a Yeast Infection Is Diagnosed

If you've had a vaginal yeast infection before, you might be tempted to self-diagnose after noticing telltale symptoms. But the most accurate way to get a yeast infection diagnosis is by visiting a healthcare provider. One 2018 study estimates that vaginal yeast infections are the reason for roughly 1.4 million outpatient medical visits each year in the US.

Whether the yeast infection is of the vagina or another area, the provider will ask about your symptoms and look at the infected area during the visit. They will also likely take a sample of your vaginal discharge, skin, or mouth lesions—depending on which area is affected—to determine if Candida overgrowth is present.

Treatment

For mild-to-moderate cases of vaginal yeast infections, treatment often involves topical antifungal medications. These come in the form of creams, ointments, or suppositories (inserted into the vagina).

For severe or recurring cases of vaginal yeast infections, a healthcare provider will likely recommend a different type of antifungal treatment regimens, such as one that has a stronger dose or an oral medication (capsules by mouth) or a combination treatment.

Yeast infections of the mouth, throat, and skin are also commonly treated with antifungals. When it comes to yeast infections of the skin, it is also key to keep the skin dry and expose it to air.

Left untreated, the infection and its symptoms will get worse. It is possible for yeast infections to affect other organs and lead to sepsis.

Prevention

While it's impossible to see the tiny Candida yeast as they start to multiply, it is possible to take preventive measures to try to keep yeast infections at bay.

To help lower the chances of developing a vaginal yeast infection, you can:

  • Refrain from douching
  • Avoid scented soaps and products around the vaginal area
  • Wear breathable cotton underwear that's not too tight
  • Change out of sweaty workout clothes or wet bathing suits as soon as possible
  • Avoid spending time in hot tubs and hot baths
  • Wipe from front to back after using the bathroom
  • Change tampons and pads often
  • Keep your blood sugar levels under control, particularly if you have diabetes
  • Take antibiotics only when you need to and exactly as your provider instructs

To prevent yeast infections of the mouth and throat, you should keep up with your oral hygiene. That includes rinsing your mouth or brushing your teeth after using inhaled corticosteroids.

When it comes to preventing yeast infections of the skin, absorbent powders can help in keeping your skin dry.

A Quick Review

Yeast infections are characterized by an overgrowth of Candida. They are common in the vagina, though they can also show up in the mouth (thrush), armpits, penis, and other damp, clammy areas of the body. If you think you might have a yeast infection, reach out to a healthcare provider for a proper diagnosis and treatment.

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Sources
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