Heather Corinna replies:
What causes a yeast infection and how can I prevent one?
Yeast infections actually get their start in the intestinal tract, not in or on your genitals. Small amounts of yeast are normal and healthy in the body, but when certain factors cause that yeast -- specifically candida albicans -- to overgrow, that's when you wind up with a yeast infection, which can show itself in your genitals or mouth, since both are connected to your digestive system.
There are a lot of different causes of yeast infections. Some of the most common are:
- Antibiotics: they're prescribed to kill bacteria to cure other infections, but they can also kill off the healthy bacteria which are needed to keep everything in balance in your belly and down south.
- Tight clothing, especially man-made fibers: things like tight polyester pants, pantyhose, and undergarments which aren't cotton are big causes. The vulva and vagina like to be able to "breathe."
- Douching or feminine "hygiene" sprays, as well as deodorant tampons and anything that goes in or on your vulva and smells like roses: your vagina cleans itself, and gets really pissed off when you try and do its job for it with chemicals. Spermicides can also have this effect.
- Hormonal birth control, like birth control pills: because of the additional hormones and how hormonal methods thicken cervical mucus as part of how they work, women on hormonal methods may have yeast infections as one side effect.
- Diet: high levels of simple sugars, processed foods and simple carbs can be a contributor to yeast infections. Some food allergies can also cause yeast infections.
- Sexual transmission: men CAN have yeast infections (their doctors may call it "jock itch" which can make it tough for a guy to even know he has a yeast infection), and women who are sexual partners can also transmit them between each other. The infection itself isn't exactly transmitted between people, but it's thought one partner having one can incline another to develop one themselves.
- Other health conditions or diseases: a common way women find out they have adult-onset Diabetes, for instance, is often due to getting chronic yeast infections. Some other conditions that can contribute include HIV,. Lyme disease, and other conditions which compromise the immune system.
How can you prevent them?
- If you're taking antibiotics, be sure to also take an acidophilus supplement (you can get them at any natural foods store or vitamin shop: just be sure to get the kind which are refrigerated) or to eat a serving or two of fresh yogurt with live cultures (if you're vegan, you can get soy yogurt) each day you're taking them.
- Ditch any pantyhose, panties without a cotton crotch, super-tight pants or anything else that doesn't give your vulva the ability to get some air.
- Don't douche. There are so many reasons not to do this, but yeast infections certainly top the list. Your vulva and vagina are "fresh" enough all by themselves, and douching only messes them up. In terms of daily washing, just a little soap (nothing too chemical-y) and water in the shower on your external genitals is all you need. As well, watch how you toilet: never wipe from back to front, always front to back.
- If you're using a hormonal birth control method and want to keep doing so, just supplement with the acidophilus or yogurt regularly like suggested with antibiotics.
- Eat in a way that's good for you most of the time. This is obviously important for your general health and well-being, but it can also help to prevent yeast infections. Be moderate with sugar, processed foods and simple carbs: make most of your diet fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains and lean proteins.
- Practice safer sex, and be sure you and your partners are both keeping an eye on your own sexual health. At the first sign of something being amiss, for either of you, see your sexual healthcare provider.
You also want to be sure you're not self-medicating for yeast infections unless you are sure that's what you've got. If you use a treatment for one when you don't have one, you can wind UP with one because the treatment will knock off your bacterial balance. Too, if you're sexually active, you'll want to be sure you're getting looked at by a sexual healthcare professional to be sure that symptoms you think are from a yeast infection aren't from another sexually transmitted infection. And with any suspicion of a possible infection, you never want to put off being seen: infections that go on and on without treatment can spread or become chronic.
Lastly, if you have had chronic yeast infections which a doctor has been treating, and the treatment isn't working, speak up and advocate for yourself. There are plenty of great women's reproductive health doctors out there, but there are just as many who are careless or don't really look at the big picture. So, when one treatment isn't working, your doctor should be suggesting other things, including helps like changing your diet, looking for food allergies, trying alternative treatments or suggesting you see a specialist. And if your doctor isn't flexible about treatment, or seems to just keep tossing the same treatment at you, then it's time to switch to a better doctor.
Here are a few extra links to help you out with behaviors that can prevent yeast infections:
• Heather Corinna • Scarleteen Founder, Editor & Advice-Slingin' Sister • Author, S.E.X.
written 16 Dec 2007 . updated 21 Jan 2014