Yeast infections are just the worst, right? They end up producing a bunch of profoundly unfun symptoms, and of course, they’re extremely common. But by knowing which kind of behaviors put you at additional risk, you can diminish your chances of being super uncomfortable (and wrecking your social life for the weekend).
What is a yeast infection, anyway?
Vaginal yeast infections are caused by a fungus, with Candida albicans being the most common, says Jessica Shepherd, M.D., OB/GYN and founder of Her Viewpoint. “The normal pH in the vagina is around four, and when the vagina becomes less acidic, vaginal yeast begins to proliferate—and can cause a yeast infection,” Shepherd says.
She notes that more than two-thirds of women will experience at least one in their lifetime… so if you haven’t had one yet, strap in, because the chances are pretty dang high that The Yeasties are coming for you too.
Symptoms you should look for:
White discharge is a common symptom of a yeast infection, but vaginas produce discharge naturally—it’s needed for healthy regulation of our reproductive systems. This is why Sherry Ross, M.D., OB/GYN, and author of She-ology, says it’s important we don’t mistake just any trace of white discharge for a sign of an infection.
“Typical symptoms of a yeast infection include an inflamed vagina with itching, burning, redness, and swelling,” she says. There may or may not be an obvious, often-white, vaginal discharge which can appear thick, lumpy, and cottage cheese-like in consistency. You may notice a vaginal odor different from your normal scent, Ross says.
Ross says that there are a lot of reasons for yeast infections, including using certain detergents or bath products, sanitary wipes, lubes, sperm, saliva, and even underwear. All of these items come in contact with the vagina and have the potential to disrupt pH balance—particularly anything that’s inserted vaginally. One way to combat these effects: Wash your vulva with an unscented, gentle cleanser, like dermatologist-beloved, super-cost-effective Cetaphil.
It’s equally important that your clothes and underwear are made of light, breathable materials. Spandex, satin, and other fabrics—yep, all the cute ones—trap moisture and promote heat, which leads to yeast growth. Try to opt for the kind with a cotton crotch, whether or not they’re cotton all over.
Of course, it’s totally OK to wear your tight, sexy clothes from time to time, if that’s your jam. But if you don’t give your vagine a break, you might end up giving yourself an infection. Sleeping without underwear is another way to make sure your body gets to breathe.
Other factors, like pregnancy, having diabetes, or following a high-glycemic diet filled with white sugar, white flour, alcohol, and processed foods can lead to an increased risk for recurrent yeast infections. And if you expose your hoo-ha to super-moist environments—say, working out in sweaty underwear or swimming in a pool—you’re going to increase your chances too. Swimming comes with risks because chlorine kills bacteria, including your good vaginal bacteria, but also promotes a moist, warm environment for yeast to multiply.
Antibiotics also kill off both harmful and healthy bacteria throughout the body indiscriminately—and once the healthy bacteria are killed off, the Candida can begin taking over. Just another reason not to use antibiotics unless you truly need to.
It’s never a good idea to douche your cooch.
If you are blissfully unfamiliar with the concept, douching means squirting a “cleansing” mixture (usually water, vinegar, and some sort of perfume) high up into the vagina. It used to be a super-common practice intended to make your vagina smell like laundry detergent instead of like a vag, but not only are your lady parts not intended to be chemical-lavender-scented, this process is very, very bad for you—and totally leads to yeast infections.
“The active cleaning ingredients used in most douches can upset the healthy vaginal discharge and pH balance, and create a yeast or bacterial infection,” Ross says. Basically, why ruin a good thing? Your vag is self-cleaning.
Ross also says that those Goop-sponsored vaginal steams and yoni eggs may be rooted in indigenous traditions, which can give them historical value, but they haven’t had enough medical research to confirm or deny their efficacy.
“The end result, so they claim, is to help treat irregular periods, vaginal cysts, bladder infections, yeast infections, uterine fibroids, infertility, and even hemorrhoids,” Ross says. “But medical research studies are still needed to really prove these benefits from a vaginal steaming.”
She does, however, note that the effects can disrupt the pH balance in a way that’s similar to douching—and that’s definitely not good. Same goes for most yoni eggs, which tend to be made of porous material like jade rather than stainless steel or glass: If you repeatedly place an item that can’t be sterilized in your hoo-ha, you’re going to increase your chances of spreading bacteria up in there.
So what should you do?
“The key to reducing yeast in the vagina is to keep the vaginal vault at the right pH, in order to minimize the amount of yeast to thrive and multiply,” Shephard says.
Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet, not wearing moist clothes for long periods of time, and wearing breathable materials is a good start. However, some individuals are just genetically predisposed to an overproduction of yeast.
If you’re dealing with a yeast infection right now, it’s fine to seek short-term relief in over-the-counter products like Monistat. However, if the issue is persistent—or if you’re allergic to the over-the-counter stuff—you might need to see your doctor for a prescription. And if you find yourself battling yeast infections often, it might be time to evaluate your body products, diet, and exercise habits.
When it’s a recurring problem…
Ross and Shepherd agree yeast infections are common and non-harmful, but they also mentioned the importance of seeing your doctor if they persist or happen more than four times per year.
And not to freak you out, but there’s a chance you’re misreading the symptoms. “There are many vaginal infections that can mimic a yeast infection, including certain STIs, like chlamydia,” Ross says. There’s also a possibility that you may have a skin allergy to latex, a hormone imbalance, or some other issue.
And while it may feel embarrassing to talk to your doctor about, remember that they see dozens—if not hundreds—of individuals with similar symptoms on a weekly basis. So be your own best advocate and ask about any symptoms you’re experiencing.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist who produces materials relating to mental and physical health, sociology, and parenting. Her work can be seen on several national platforms. Check her out on Facebook and Twitter.