Yeast infections result from an imbalance in the body’s natural bacteria that causes the organism Candida (yeast) to multiply. They can also be caused by some health conditions (such as HIV), high estrogen levels (including during pregnancy), and antibiotics that alter the amount of bacteria in the vagina.
Yeast infections can occur in various parts of the body, including inside the vagina, mouth, and esophagus, as well as on the skin and in the bloodstream. Symptoms include itchiness, pain, thick vaginal discharge, and red or white spots on the skin. They can usually be treated with antifungal medications and creams, some of which are available over-the-counter.
Types of Yeast Infections
An infection in the vaginal area is usually called a vaginal yeast infection, vaginitis, or simply a yeast infection. Most women experience vaginitis at least once during their lives.
A yeast infection in the mouth is known as thrush (or oropharyngeal candidiasis). In the esophagus (the tube leading from the mouth to the stomach), a yeast infection is called esophagitis.
Yeast infections can also develop as a skin rash (known as candida infection of the skin or cutaneous candidiasis) or in the bloodstream (invasive candidiasis), which can become life-threatening if untreated.
Yeast Infection Symptoms
The symptoms of a yeast infection vary depending on which area is affected.
Vaginal Yeast Infection Symptoms
Women with a vaginal yeast infection may experience irritation, itching, and/or burning in the vaginal area. They may also feel pain or soreness in the vagina, especially when urinating or during intercourse. Vaginal yeast infections may cause rashes, redness and swelling, and watery or abnormally thick vaginal discharge. This tends to be thick, white, and odorless, resembling cottage cheese.
Oral yeast infections often result in red, cracked areas inside the mouth and/or on the tongue, as well as white patches. You may also notice blood when brushing your teeth, and swallowing may feel painful. A yeast infection in the esophagus (esophagitis) can make swallowing painful. Esophagitis can also cause pain beneath the breastbone.
When yeast infections occur on the skin, symptoms include red patches that are moist and raw, usually in warm creases of the body like the groin or armpits. In some cases, lesions containing pus develop along the edges of red areas. Yeast infections on the skin are usually itchy and sometimes painful, and can occur in both men and women.
Yeast infections in the bloodstream commonly occur in patients who are already hospitalized for another condition, making the symptoms harder to diagnose. The most common symptoms are fever and chills. If the condition spreads to other parts of the body, like the eyes or brain, other serious symptoms may be experienced, including vision changes, low blood pressure, and abdominal pain.
Yeast Infection Causes and Prevention
Candida, or yeast, exists in small amounts throughout the body, and is not harmful in itself. But when Candida grows to such a large amount that it causes an imbalance in your body’s system, a yeast infection develops. This may happen due to hormonal changes, illness, or antibiotics usage, among other things.
Vaginal Yeast Infections
Yeast infections in the vaginal area are common among women, though men can sometimes develop a similar condition known as genital candidiasis. Risk factors include diabetes, a weakened immune system, pregnancy, obesity, birth control, corticosteroid medications, and antibiotic usage over an extended period of time.
Women can do several things to reduce the risk of developing a yeast infection:
- Avoid using feminine hygiene products that may alter the acidity of the vagina, including scented pads, tampons, and sprays
- Since yeast infections commonly occur when body heat or moisture builds up, avoiding tight underwear and pants can also help. Wear breathable cotton underwear, and change out of wet or sweaty clothing promptly after swimming or working out. Body powders can also help by absorbing moisture, but talcum powder should be avoided due to the connection with ovarian cancer.
- Other things to avoid include douching, hot tubs, and hot baths, as well as bath additives like bubbles and bath bombs.
- Patients with diabetes should keep their blood sugar under control to reduce the risk of yeast infection.
- To prevent a yeast infection skin rash in newborns, it’s important to regularly change diapers and keep the baby’s skin dry and clean.
Skin and Oral Yeast Infections
Oral Infections / Thrush: Oropharyngeal candidiasis occurs most often among the elderly, babies under one month, and those with compromised immune systems. Risk factors include diabetes, HIV and AIDS, cancer treatment, dentures, having had an organ transplant, and the use of antibiotics, corticosteroid medications, or steroids.
The best way to prevent thrush is through strong oral hygiene. Mouthwash or water can help clean out the mouth and counter the negative side-effects of using corticosteroids.
Diagnosing Yeast Infections
Yeast infections can often be self-diagnosed, however, since many of the symptoms of vaginitis and thrush are similar to those of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like gonorrhea, they are sometimes misdiagnosed. Speak to your doctor if you are concerned you may have a yeast infection.
The following diagnostic tests are usually performed to identify yeast infections:
- To diagnose a vaginal yeast infection, the doctor may examine the pelvic area, looking for discharge and swelling. This can include taking a discharge sample using cotton swabs. A speculum is often used to keep the vagina open during the examination
- For thrush, the doctor will check for sores in the mouth and on the tongue. They may scrape a sample from a mouth sore and examine it using a microscope
- Esophagitis is usually diagnosed by examining the esophagus and the stomach using a scope with a light and camera attached
- For yeast infection on the skin, the doctor examines the skin of the patient and may scrape a sample of the affected area for testing
- Yeast infections in the bloodstream require a blood sample to diagnose
Yeast Infection Treatment
Yeast infection treatment varies depending on the severity and type of infection, age, and immunity.
A vaginal or skin yeast infection can usually be treated at home with antifungal creams and/or oral medications. Some are available without prescription. As much as possible, keep the infected area dry and clean, and wear breathable clothing.
If you develop an infection that becomes more severe or occurs with a fever or pelvic pain, or if you develop a yeast infection while pregnant, speak to a doctor. The doctor may prescribe medication and a treatment plan involving careful monitoring and hygiene.
For thrush, your doctor may prescribe antifungal medication. If you have a mild form of the condition, you may be able to treat it at home by taking acidophilus pills and eating yogurt.
Thrush is common among infants, and usually clears up in a matter of days with no treatment at all. In other cases, you may need to apply antifungal medicine to the child’s tongue and mouth. If your child experiences frequent oral yeast infections, speak to your doctor, as this may indicate more serious health issues.
Yeast infections in the bloodstream are treated using antifungal medication, usually administered intravenously (through the vein).
With proper treatment, most yeast infections clear up in about a week. If they persist without signs of improvement, schedule an appointment with your doctor.
Yeast Infection Statistics
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 75% of women have developed or will develop a vaginal yeast infection sometime in their life. Of these, at least half will experience a recurrence of the condition.
Oral yeast infections (thrush and esophagitis) are rarer. They are most common in AIDS patients, with as many as 31% affected by the condition, and cancer patients, 20% of whom are affected. Babies under one month have a 5-7% chance of developing an oral yeast infection.
The CDC estimates that there are 46,000 cases of invasive candidiasis associated with healthcare every year. It is among the most common bloodstream infections in the U.S.