How to tell if you have a vaginal yeast infection: causes and symptoms?

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If you’ve ever had a yeast infection, we feel your pain – because yeast infections are rough, and that’s us being nice about it. Not only does a yeast infection involve an itchy vaginal area, which can make for some seriously awkward moments, but unlike cramps and PMS, a yeast infection won’t just go away on its own. Instead, you have to be proactive in treating yeast infections. In this case, the sooner the better, in part because it means the symptoms will stop that much sooner. And that counts for a lot – if there’s anything that can drive you up the wall, it’s an itchy vaginal area. Here’s everything you need to know about vaginal yeast infections.

What is a yeast infection?

A yeast infection, which is also known as vulvovaginal candidiasis, is a fungal infection in the vagina caused by an overgrowth of a vaginal yeast called candida. But don’t worry – it sounds way worse than it actually is. Candida actually grows naturally in the vagina and bowel, where it lives peacefully alongside – and is kept in check by – other harmless fungi and bacteria. But if something throws off the balance, the vaginal yeast can grow too much and cause an infection.

You’re at the greatest risk of getting a yeast infection right before your period starts. And although it’s not a sexually transmitted infection, you might be at higher risk of a vaginal yeast infection when you first begin engaging in sexual activities on a regular basis. Also, some evidence shows that oral-to-genital contact, like some forms of oral sex, can also increase your risk¹. We’re not saying you should change your habits based on that, but it’s still worth keeping in mind if you’ve had a vaginal yeast infection in the past. ¹

What are the signs and symptoms of a yeast infection?

The one good thing about yeast infections is that they don’t just lie low and wreak havoc without you realising it. If you have one, you’ll definitely know about it, because yeast infection symptoms aren’t the kind that you can just ignore. They can affect both the vagina and the vulva, which are the tissues at the vaginal opening. Symptoms to look out for are:

  • Thick, white vaginal discharge that looks like cottage cheese
  • Irritation and itchiness around the vagina and vulva
  • Burning or discomfort when urinating or during intercourse
  • A red or swollen vulva
  • Vaginal soreness, pain, or a rash
  • Vaginal inflammation

If this is the first time you’ve ever had yeast infection symptoms – or if you aren’t sure whether you have a yeast infection or something else – consult your doctor for medical advice before trying to treat it yourself. The same goes if you develop any other symptoms besides the above.

How do you get a yeast infection?

Anyone with a vagina can get a vaginal yeast infection, including those who aren’t necessarily at a high risk of them (sometimes it’s just bad luck). However, your chances of getting vaginal yeast infections do increase with a few other factors added in, such as:

Compromised immune system

Those who have an impaired or weakened immune system, be it from a corticosteroid therapy for another health condition or another infection, are more likely to get yeast infections, since their immune system can’t reduce the growing candida yeast as easily.

Using antibiotics

Antibiotics have one job, and that’s to kill off bacteria. But they’re not exactly accurate, meaning they kill healthy bacteria as well as the bad stuff. By disrupting the balance within your vagina, antibiotics can create an opportunity for vaginal yeast to take over.

Fluctuating hormone levels

Vaginal yeast infections occur more often in people who have fluctuations in their hormones for whatever reason – they may be pregnant, about to get their period, taking a contraceptive pill with a high dose of oestrogen, or doing oestrogen hormone therapy. In addition to their usual effects, these drastic fluctuations in hormones can also mess with the bacteria in your vagina, which in turn increases your risk of a vaginal yeast infection. (However, don’t jump to the conclusion that any weird discharge leading up to your period is a yeast infection. Keep an eye out for other symptoms, like redness, itchiness and a burning sensation.)

Untreated diabetes

If your blood sugar is left uncontrolled, it can increase your chances of a yeast infection. Here’s why: vaginal yeast like to feed on sugar, so high blood sugar is like giving the yeast an all-you-can-eat buffet. Properly managing your blood sugar, on the other hand, will keep your risk at a minimum.

How to prevent and treat yeast infections

Time for some good news: it’s pretty easy to treat yeast infections. You can get over-the-counter treatments at your local pharmacy – no doctor required – or ask your doctor about a single-dose medication to treat it. The most common treatment for yeast infections (also known as thrush) can come as either an oral antifungal drug in the form of a pill, or an antifungal cream, which you insert into your vagina. Whichever one you decide to go with, the course of treatment should only last one to three days.

FYI: If you have your period, avoid using a tampon at the same time as an antifungal cream, as the tampon could remove some of the medication, which defeats the purpose.

If your symptoms are severe, or you tend to get yeast infections all the time, your doctor might prescribe you a long-course antifungal cream, which you use daily for two weeks and then weekly for six months, or an oral antifungal drug, which is just two or three doses in the form of a pill.

If you’ve never had a yeast infection before, or your over-the-counter treatment doesn’t improve your symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor. Also, a heads up: while you can find a million and one natural remedies out there, such as coconut oil, garlic, and even tea tree cream, you should definitely talk to your doctor before trying anything. The same goes for essential oils, which can be super-irritating to some skin types, especially if they’re not diluted correctly. They aren’t nearly as effective or reliable as the standard, doctor-approved treatments for yeast infections, if at all – and if you don’t actually have a yeast infection, then they definitely won’t help.

In the meantime, here are a few ways you can prevent yeast infections:

  • If you have vaginal discharge (like a yeast infection discharge) that’s not related to your period, don’t use a tampon to absorb it. A pantyliner is your best bet.
  • Wear cotton underwear, which helps with air circulation and can help keep vaginal yeast from over-growing.
  • Stay away from scented soaps and bath salts, as they could irritate the sensitive vaginal tissue.
  • Don’t use vaginal washes or douches since they’re not supposed to be used when you have an infection. (And your vagina is self-cleaning!)
  • Change out of wet or sweaty clothes once you’re done swimming or working out, as moisture can promote yeast growth. Thanks, but no thanks.

In a perfect world, you just wouldn’t ever get a vaginal yeast infection. But if it does happen, now you’ll know exactly what to do. Preparation for the win.

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