Odds are if you’re in possession of a vagina, you’ll encounter the miserable itch and burn of a yeast infection at some point. A vaginal yeast infection is caused by overgrowth of Candida fungus, which usually coexists peacefully with the rest of your vaginal microbiome.
Since our body’s natural bacteria, including Lactobacillus, helps prevent the overgrowth of Candida yeast, it might seem like a good idea to boost your intake of probiotics — the same healthy bacteria — to help restore balance.
First it’s important to make sure you actually have a yeast infection.
How do you know if you have a vaginal yeast infection?
You’re more likely to experiences a yeast infection if you:
- are pregnant
- are of child-bearing age
- have diabetes
- are immune compromised
- use douches or vaginal deodorants
- have recently taken antibiotics or steroid medication
- use some types of hormonal birth control
Conventional treatment for yeast infection is external antifungal cream, vaginal antifungal suppository, or antifungal medication taken by mouth.
Seems simple to recognize and take care of, right? Slow your roll on the self-diagnosis. Yeast infection symptoms overlap with symptoms of bacterial vaginosis and some sexually transmitted diseases.
In fact, two out of three women who buy medication to treat a yeast infection actually have a different kind of infection.
Because symptoms like vaginal itching and burning can point to a relatively benign yeast infection or a different infection with more serious consequences, it’s a good idea to have your doctor to do an exam and tests to confirm your hunch.
In the meantime, use an over-the-counter (OTC) anti-itch cream for the vulva, like Vagisil, to ease irritation until you can see you doctor.
Probiotics are microorganisms in supplements and food that can benefit your health. Microorganisms naturally live on and in our bodies, helping with digestion, fighting illness, and making vitamins.
Probiotics may support health by helping to maintain a balanced microbiome (the collection of microorganisms living on and in you) and supporting your immune system.
Lactobacillus (aka acidophilus) is a “friendly” bacteria that lives in human digestive, genital, and urinary systems. It’s also found in fermented foods like yogurt.
The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database rates Lactobacillus as “possibly effective” for treating vaginal bacterial overgrowth, but “possibly ineffective” at treating vaginal yeast infections.
While ingesting Lactobacillus in supplements or yogurt may not prevent yeast infections for folks who take antibiotics, vaginal probiotic suppositories do improve symptoms when used with conventional treatment.
Do they actually work?
You can find a ton of anecdotal information about eating yogurt or applying it to your vagina for yeast infection relief — people have been doing it for centuries!
But what does the research say? Unfortunately, not much.
A 2015 study compared the effectiveness of clotrimazole, an antifungal vaginal cream, with a mixture of yogurt and honey. (Honey is antimicrobial and a traditional remedy for many ailments.)
In that study, the yogurt and honey mixture was more effective than clotrimazole at relieving symptoms, but critics have questioned the soundness of the research. The study was very small and much more research is needed.
Another 2015 study (not performed within humans) showed some Lactobacillus strains were effective against Candida glabrata. However, infections with Candida glabrata are less common and don’t always respond to the same treatments as Candida albicans.
So the answer is maybe it could work, theoretically?
Women who use probiotics to treat vaginal yeast infections either turn to probiotic-rich yogurt, probiotic capsules, or vaginal suppositories.
If you’re using a supplement or OTC probiotic medication, follow the package instructions. Packaged probiotics may be intended for oral or vaginal use, so make sure you read those directions!
As for treating a yeast infection with yogurt, here are some of the options:
- Just eat it. The theory is that consuming probiotic yogurt will rebalance your microbiome. Can’t hurt to try it, within moderation.
- Apply plain yogurt externally to soothe itching and burning. It’s crucial that you choose a plain yogurt with no added sugar or flavorings. Sugar could really kick that yeast into high gear, and other ingredients may be irritating.
- Fill an empty (clean and unused) tampon applicator with plain yogurt and insert vaginally. You can also freeze it before inserting it, for extra cooling relief. Note: Accounts of this are purely anecdotal and generally not recommended by healthcare providers.
The yogurt and honey study mentioned above measured improvement in symptoms at 1 and 2 weeks when the mixture was applied externally. Probiotic supplements can take 1 to 4 weeks if taken orally.
Because yogurt and probiotics are relatively safe, you can try both without much worry.
Taken orally, Lactobacillus is likely safe, but may cause mild side effects like gas or bloating. Lactobacillus is also likely safe when applied vaginally. Some people should use caution with Lactobacillus, including people with the following:
- a weakened immune system
- short bowel syndrome
- ulcerative colitis
- damaged heart valves
A general word of caution: supplements like probiotics are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for content and quality.
Probiotic supplements may contain more or less of the listed ingredients, or other substances that aren’t listed on the label.
You’re the expert on your own vagina. But remember diagnosing vaginal infections can be tricky, and you may want to have a doctor check it out.
If you’ve never had a yeast infection before, it’s an especially good idea to see a pro. What you think is a yeast infection could be a sexually transmitted disease or bacterial vaginosis in disguise.
If you’re experienced with yeast infections and want to try home treatment, contact your doctor if your symptoms haven’t improved in 1 to 2 weeks. You may need to try a prescription antifungal medication for especially tough yeast infections.
Using probiotics to treat a yeast infection is both traditional and trendy. While there’s not much scientific evidence to prove its effectiveness, there’s also little risk in giving it a try.
The most important thing to remember is that your “yeast infection” might actually be a different, more serious infection. If symptoms don’t improve in a week or 2, chat with your doctor to figure out a treatment plan.