Most often caused by the yeast species Candida albicans, vaginal yeast infections can cause a number of symptoms, including itching in the vaginal area and around the vulva (the opening of the vagina), burning sensations in the genitals, and a cottage cheese–like discharge. Though yeast infection symptoms can be annoying, the infection, known medically as vulvovaginal candidiasis, is rarely dangerous.
Still, you can take steps to prevent yeast infections:
- Practice good hygiene
- Wear the right clothes
- Avoid scented sprays and bath products
- Don't douche
- Avoid certain medications (when possible)
- Maintain proper diet, sleep, and exercise
- Keep the vagina clean and dry
These preventative measures are all the more important if you experience four or more yeast infections each year, a condition known as recurrent or chronic yeast infection.
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While it's not entirely clear what causes some women to get recurring yeast infections, there are a number of risk factors that can predispose you to it.
These risk factors for developing yeast factors include:
- Things that alter your normal hormone balance, including pregnancy, birth control pills, and estrogen therapy
- Frequent antibiotic use, which kills the beneficial bacteria that normally keep Candida's population under control
- Uncontrolled diabetes mellitus, which can cause a spike in sugar in the membrane of the vagina (sugar encourages the growth of yeast)
- Conditions that affect your immune system, particularly HIV
- Obesity, which provides more areas of moisture and warmth (such as skin folds) in which Candida can grow
- Clothing that is tight-fitting and synthetic, keeping the vaginal area moist and warm
- Your anatomy can contribute: Having a short distance between the vagina and anus, where microorganisms frequently live.
In some cases, this may be the result of an allergic reaction to Candida after the initial yeast infection.
Recurring yeast infections may also be the result of an intestinal or vaginal reservoir of Candida. About 20 percent of women (and 30 percent of pregnant women) are colonized by Candida — this colonization doesn’t cause symptoms until the balance of microbial communities is altered by antibiotic use, hormonal changes, and other factors.
Sex can also be a risk factor for chronic yeast infections due to spermicidal condoms (which cause vaginal irritation that makes the vagina more prone to infections), C. albicans in the mouth (passed on via oral sex), and glycerin-based lubricants.
How Clothing Can Affect Yeast Infections
Cotton and silk underwear absorb moisture, keeping you dry.
On the other hand, nylon and other synthetic fabrics hold moisture close to your skin, encouraging the growth of yeast. Synthetic underwear may also cause allergy and hypersensitivity reactions that can alter the vagina environment and contribute to yeast infections.
What's more, sitting around in sweaty gym clothes or a wet bathing suit provides an environment in which yeast can thrive. Change into dry clothes as soon as possible.
Pantyhose, tights, and leggings can cause heat and moisture to build up in the crotch area.
If you do wear pantyhose, be sure to wear cotton panties underneath, and choose pantyhose with a cotton crotch.
Avoid snug-fitting pajamas — a loose, flowing nightgown is preferable. And going without underwear while you sleep will help keep your genital area dry and discourage yeast growth.
Keeping the vagina clean will not only keep you smelling fresh, it can also help prevent yeast infections.
When bathing, be sure to clean the inside folds of the vagina where yeast is likely to grow.
Because yeast thrives in moist environments, it's important to dry the entire vaginal area after taking a shower or bath.
Certain Products, Antibiotics, and Conditions Are Linked to Yeast Infections
Perfumes can be irritating to the sensitive area inside the vagina, and that can increase your risk of getting a yeast infection.
Also avoid scented sanitary pads and tampons and colored or printed toilet paper — dyes can also be irritating.
Douching destroys not only harmful bacteria, but also the helpful kind that keep yeast under control.
Douche products also wash away the natural protective lining of the vagina, leaving you more susceptible to yeast and other vaginal infections, while also introduces substances that may cause allergic reactions and alter the pH balance (acidity) of the vagina.
Antibiotic use has been linked to the onset of yeast infections because these drugs can kill beneficial bacteria in the body, making it easier for Candida yeast to proliferate. Take antibiotics only as directed and avoid unnecessary antibiotic use.
Finally, a healthy immune system helps keep yeast under control.
Try keeping a regular sleep schedule and avoiding exercise, caffeine, and heavy meals within three hours of bedtime. Consider stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation, yoga, and regular exercise, to keep down high levels of stress, which can compromise your immune system.
Immune-depressing diseases such as diabetes and HIV can also increase the risk of yeast infections.
Additionally, if you have diabetes, it's important to keep your blood sugar levels under control to prevent yeast infections. Sugar is a prime food source for yeast.
Changing Your Diet May Help Prevent Yeast Infections
There's some evidence that sugar may help promote the growth of yeast. Yeast's affinity for sweets has prompted some experts to suggest that diet may be a risk factor for some women when it comes to developing yeast infections. In fact, some people follow a so-called yeast infection diet or candida diet (or anti-candida diet) on the theory that eliminating certain foods may eliminate or at least greatly reduce the risk of yeast overgrowth.
Proponents of these regimens claim that a yeast infection diet can help to cure or prevent yeast infections by eliminating:
- Foods containing simple sugars, including many fruits
- White flour and other glutenous grains
- Anything fermented with yeast, such as alcoholic drinks
- Some dairy products, including whole milk
The diet recommends sticking to foods like green vegetables, protein (from wild-caught fish, eggs, beans grass-fed beef, and chicken), nuts, and herbal tea.
While anecdotal evidence abounds, the candida diet is not (yet) supported by rigorous scientific research.
BETTER HEALTH & BEYOND Editorial Team
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