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Patient education: Vaginal yeast infection (Beyond the Basics)

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Jack D Sobel, MD
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Robert L Barbieri, MD
Deputy Editor
Kristen Eckler, MD, FACOG
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INTRODUCTION

Vaginal yeast infections (also called yeast vaginitis or vaginal candidiasis) are a common problem in women. The most common symptoms are itching and irritation of the vulva and around the opening of the vagina. Vaginal yeast infections usually occur as infrequent episodes, but can recur frequently and may cause chronic persistent symptoms.

Yeast infections occur mainly in women who are menstruating (having monthly periods). They are less common in postmenopausal women who do not use estrogen-containing hormone therapy and they are rare in girls who have not yet started menstruating.

VAGINAL YEAST INFECTION SYMPTOMS

The most common symptoms of a yeast infection include:

Itching or irritation of the vulva and around the vaginal opening (figure 1)

Pain with urination,

Vulvar soreness or irritation

Pain with intercourse

Reddened and swollen vulvar and vaginal tissues.

Some women have no abnormal vaginal discharge. Others have white clumpy (curd-like) or watery vaginal discharge.

Symptoms of a yeast infection are similar to a number of other conditions, including bacterial vaginosis (a bacterial infection of the vagina), trichomoniasis (a sexually transmitted infection), and dermatitis (irritated skin). (See "Patient education: Vaginal discharge in adult women (Beyond the Basics)".)

It is often not possible to know if itching is caused by yeast or other causes. (See 'Self-diagnosis' below.)

VAGINAL YEAST INFECTION CAUSE

The fungus that causes yeast infections (named Candida) lives in the gastrointestinal tract and sometimes the vagina. Normally, Candida causes no symptoms. However, when there are changes in the environment of the gastrointestinal tract and vagina (which can be caused by medicines, injury, or stress to the immune system), Candida can overgrow and cause the symptoms described above.

VAGINAL YEAST INFECTION RISK FACTORS

In most women, there is no underlying health problem that leads to a yeast infection. There are several risk factors that may increase the chances of developing an infection, including:

Antibiotics – Most antibiotics kill a wide variety of bacteria, including those that normally live in the vagina. These bacteria protect the vagina from the overgrowth of yeast. Some women are prone to yeast infections while taking antibiotics.

Hormonal contraceptives (eg, birth control pills, patch, and vaginal ring) – The risk of yeast infections may be higher in women who use birth control methods that contain the hormone estrogen. (See "Patient education: Hormonal methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)".)

Contraceptive devices – Vaginal sponges, diaphragms, and intrauterine devices (IUDs) may increase the risk of yeast infections. Spermicides do not usually cause yeast infections, although they can cause vaginal or vulvar irritation in some women. (See "Patient education: Birth control; which method is right for me? (Beyond the Basics)".)

Weakened immune system – Yeast infections are more common in people who have a weakened immune system due to HIV or use of certain medications (steroids, chemotherapy, post-organ transplant medications).

Pregnancy – Vaginal discharge becomes more noticeable during pregnancy, although yeast infection is not always the cause. (See "Patient education: Vaginal discharge in adult women (Beyond the Basics)".)

Diabetes – Women with diabetes are at higher risk for yeast infections, especially if blood sugar is not well controlled.

Sexual activity – Vaginal yeast infections are not a sexually transmitted infection. They can occur in women who have never been sexually active, but are more common in women who are sexually active.

VAGINAL YEAST INFECTION DIAGNOSIS

To diagnose a yeast infection, your doctor or nurse will examine your vulva and vagina. He or she will also swab the vagina to get a sample of discharge, which will be examined under a microscope in a lab. Do not begin treatment at home until your doctor or nurse has confirmed that you have a yeast infection.

Self-diagnosis — Women with vulvar itching or vaginal discharge often assume that their symptoms are caused by a yeast infection and try to treat it themselves using over-the-counter medications. However, in one study, only 11 percent of women accurately diagnosed their infection; women with a previous yeast infection were only slightly more accurate (35 percent correct) [1].

Diagnosing and treating yourself:

Wastes money (on non-prescription treatment)

Wastes time; you will not feel better until you use the right treatment

Can make you more itchy and irritated

For these reasons, it's important to see your doctor or nurse to confirm that you actually have a yeast infection before beginning treatment.

VAGINAL YEAST INFECTION TREATMENT

Treatment may include a pill that you take by mouth or a vaginal treatment.

Vaginal treatment — Treatment for a vaginal yeast infection often includes a vaginal cream or tablet. You apply the cream or tablet inside the vagina at bedtime with an applicator. There are prescription and non-prescription treatments, so ask your doctor or nurse which to use. One, three, and seven-day treatments are equally effective. The length of treatment depends on how severe your infection is.

Oral treatment — A prescription pill called fluconazole (sample brand name: Diflucan) is another option for treating yeast infections. Most women only need one dose, although women with more complicated infections (such as those with underlying medical problems, recurrent yeast infections, or severe signs and symptoms) may require a second dose 72 hours (three days) after the first dose.

Side effects of fluconazole are mild and infrequent, but may include stomach upset, headache, and rash. Fluconazole interacts with a number of medications; ask your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist if you have concerns. Fluconazole is not recommended during pregnancy due to the potential risk of harm to the developing baby.

When will I feel better? — Most yeast infections go away within a few days of starting treatment. However, you may continue to feel itchy and irritated, even after the infection is gone. If you do not get better within a few days after finishing treatment, call your doctor or nurse for advice.

RECURRENT VAGINAL YEAST INFECTIONS

Between 5 and 8 percent of women have recurrent yeast infections, defined as four or more infections per year.

There is no evidence that eating yogurt or other "probiotic" products containing live Lactobacillus acidophilus, or applying these products to the vagina, is of any benefit in women with recurrent vaginal yeast infections.

Diagnosis — As with initial yeast infections, it is important to correctly diagnose recurrent yeast infections. A woman who has frequent signs and symptoms of vulvar or vaginal irritation or itching should be seen by a healthcare provider to ensure that her symptoms are caused by yeast rather than other common problems (eg, other vaginal infections, allergic reaction or sensitivity, eczema). As with initial infections, self-diagnosis is not accurate enough to recommend treatment.

Most vaginal yeast infections are caused by a fungus called Candida albicans. Persistent or recurrent infections may be due to infection with one of the less common species of Candida, such as Candida glabrata or Candida krusei. In women with recurrent or persistent symptoms, vaginal cultures should always be obtained to confirm the diagnosis and identify these less common species, if present, since different medications are used to treat these infections. This involves testing a sample of vaginal discharge in a lab.

Treatment — Women with persistent symptoms are usually given a longer course of treatment for infections. This might involve several doses of fluconazole taken a few days apart, followed by weekly doses for the next six months.

Treatment of a sexual partner — Vaginal yeast infection is not a sexually transmitted infection, although the infection may rarely be passed from one partner to another. Experts do not recommend treatment of a sexual partner.

PREVENTION

Sporadic attacks of vulvovaginal candidiasis usually occur without an identifiable precipitating factor. Nevertheless, a number of factors predispose to symptomatic infection:

Diabetes mellitus – Women with diabetes mellitus who have poor glycemic (blood sugar) control are more prone to vulvovaginal candidiasis than women whose blood sugar is normal. Maintaining good glycemic control can help to prevent vaginal infection.

Antibiotics – One-quarter to one-third of women are prone to vulvovaginal candidiasis during or after taking broad spectrum antibiotics. These drugs inhibit normal bacterial flora, which favors growth of potential pathogens such as candida. In women susceptible to symptomatic yeast infections with antibiotic therapy, a dose of oral fluconazole at the start and end of antibiotic therapy may prevent postantibiotic vulvovaginitis.

Increased estrogen levels – Vulvovaginal candidiasis appears to occur more often in the setting of increased estrogen levels, such as oral contraceptive use (especially when estrogen dose is high), pregnancy, and estrogen therapy, including topical or intravaginal estrogen therapy by postmenopausal women.

Immunosuppression – Candidal infections are more common people whose immune system is weaker than normal, such as those who take corticosteroids or have HIV infection.

Contraceptive devices – Vaginal sponges, diaphragms, and intrauterine devices (IUDs) have been associated with vulvovaginal candidiasis, but not consistently. Spermicides are not associated with candida infection.

There is no good evidence showing a link between vulvovaginal candidiasis and hygienic habits or wearing tight or synthetic clothing.

SUMMARY

Vaginal yeast infections are a common problem in women.

Itching is the most common symptom of a vaginal yeast infection. Women may also note pain with urination, soreness or irritation, pain with intercourse, or reddened and swollen vulvar and vaginal tissues. There is often little or no vaginal discharge; if present, discharge is typically white and clumpy (curd-like) or thin and watery.

Symptoms of a yeast infection are similar to a number of other conditions. A physical examination and laboratory testing are needed to determine the cause of symptoms.

There are several risk factors that may increase the chances of developing a yeast infection, including use of antibiotics, birth control, diabetes, pregnancy, and a weakened immune system (due to chemotherapy, HIV, or certain medications).

To diagnose a vaginal yeast infection, a healthcare provider will do an examination. Physical examination alone, even when done by a clinician, is not sufficient to reliably diagnose a yeast infection and should be accompanied by a microscopic examination of the vaginal discharge. It is important to be seen and tested when symptoms are bothersome and before starting any treatment.

Do not begin treatment for a yeast infection before being examined and tested.

Treatment of vaginal yeast infection may include a vaginal cream or tablet or a pill taken by mouth.

WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION

Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient education: Vulvovaginal yeast infection (The Basics)
Patient education: Vaginal discharge in adults (The Basics)
Patient education: Probiotics (The Basics)
Patient education: Diabetes and infections (The Basics)
Patient education: Vulvar itching (The Basics)
Patient education: Vulvar pain (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient education: Vaginal discharge in adult women (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Hormonal methods of birth control (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Birth control; which method is right for me? (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Candida vulvovaginitis: Clinical manifestations and diagnosis
Desquamative inflammatory vaginitis
HIV and women
Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of localized vulvar pain syndrome (formerly vulvodynia, vestibulodynia, vulvar vestibulitis, or focal vulvitis)
Approach to women with symptoms of vaginitis
Vulvar lesions: Differential diagnosis based on morphology
Overview of Candida infections
Screening for sexually transmitted infections
Acute uncomplicated cystitis and pyelonephritis in women

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

National Library of Medicine

     (www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/yeastinfections.html)

United States Department of Health and Human Services

     (http://www.publichealth.va.gov/infectiondontpassiton/womens-health-guide/vaginal-yeast-infections.asp)

The Nemours Foundations

     (www.kidshealth.org/teen/infections/fungal/yeast_infections.html)

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Literature review current through: Oct 2017. | This topic last updated: Tue Oct 03 00:00:00 GMT+00:00 2017.
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