Yeast Infections: Symptoms, Treatments, and Causes

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil
January 26, 2022
6 mins

A yeast infection is a common, treatable health condition. Although having a yeast infection can be irritating and distressing, it’s usually easy to relieve symptoms and get back to your normal routine.

What Is a Yeast Infection?  

A yeast infection is a type of infection caused by the very common fungus called Candida. Candida lives on the skin and in the gastrointestinal tract, mouth, and genitals, in most people. The fungus itself is nothing to worry about. However, if it starts to multiply out of control under certain circumstances, it can cause a condition known as a yeast infection.

Are Yeast Infections Common?

It’s estimated that 75 percent of people with vaginas will develop at least one yeast infection over the course of their lives. Although vaginal yeast infections are more common, people can develop yeast infections in other areas of the body. Penile yeast infections and yeast infections in the mouth or throat (more commonly known as thrush or candida esophagitis) can affect people of all genders. 

What Are Typical Yeast Infection Symptoms?

There are two different types of vaginal yeast infections. 

Simple yeast infections are more typical and are generally treated with easy-to-use, over-the-counter remedies and medications. The symptoms of a simple yeast infection include:

     • Vaginal itching

     • Swelling

     • Rashes

     • Burning during urination

     • Pain or burning sensation during sex

     • Redness

     • Abnormal vaginal discharge (often a thick, white discharge, but it can be other colors or consistencies as well)

If a simple yeast infection is left untreated or if you have mitigating factors, you may be diagnosed with a complicated yeast infection. In addition to the symptoms of a simple yeast infection, the symptoms of a complicated infection include:

     • Swollen and irritated vaginal tissue

     • Itching that leads to cracks, tears, or sores

     • Four or more yeast infections per year

If you have serious symptoms or frequently recurring vaginal yeast infections, make an appointment to speak to a healthcare provider. 

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Symptoms of a penile yeast infection include:

     • A red rash

     • Itchiness

     • White, shiny patches 

     • Abnormal thick, white substance under the foreskin or other folds of skin

     • Abnormal smells in the genital area

Itchiness and pain in the penis can be signs of other, more serious conditions, including some sexually transmitted infections. Talk to a primary care provider if you have concerns. 

What Are the Main Causes of a Yeast Infection?

While most people have harmless Candida fungus on their bodies, there are many reasons that this fungus may overdevelop and turn into an infection. Here are some of the most common causes of yeast infections.

+ Hormone changes

Hormone changes affect the balance of fungus and other bacteria in the vagina, causing a yeast infection. Some of the most common times when hormone changes can lead to a vaginal yeast infection include during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause.

+ Antibiotics

Taking an antibiotic can kill off beneficial bacteria, leaving space for yeast to grow.

+ Diabetes

If you aren’t able to control your diabetes, the increase in blood sugar in the moist linings of the vagina can create the perfect environment for an overgrowth of the Candida fungus.

+ Sexual intercourse 

A person with an active yeast infection can easily pass that infection on to sexual partners through genital or oral contact. This is one of the most common causes of a penile yeast infection.

+ A weakened immune system

An immune system that is compromised due to a disorder like HIV or those on immunosuppressing medications can create opportunities for yeast and fungus to grow unchecked, causing a yeast infection.

+ Stress

Ongoing stress can cause the body to produce elevated levels of cortisol, which can weaken the immune system, making yeast infections more likely. 

What are Some Factors That Increase My Risk of Having a Yeast Infection?

There are a variety of risk factors that increase your likelihood of developing a yeast infection. Some of them are related to previously mentioned causes. For example, regularly taking antibiotics or having an impaired immune system makes it more likely that you will develop a yeast infection. 

Uncontrolled diabetes is another major risk factor. People who frequently have high blood sugar levels are more likely to develop a yeast infection.

People with increased estrogen levels are also at greater risk for yeast infections. Higher levels of estrogen present in the body can cause Candida fungus to grow more rapidly, potentially leading to a yeast infection.

How Is a Yeast Infection Treated?  

Treating a vaginal yeast infection depends on whether the infection is simple or complicated.

Simple infections are typically cleared up in under a week using easily accessible oral or vaginal antifungal medications. These medications are typically available as either a topical cream or an oral pill and can be found at pharmacies, either over the counter or through a prescription from your doctor.

Penile yeast infections are typically treated with over-the-counter antifungal creams. 

Complicated yeast infections should be treated with help from your healthcare provider. They will likely prescribe an antifungal cream or oral medication that can be taken for between seven and 14 days. If your symptoms are painful and irritating, they may also prescribe a topical steroid cream that can help alleviate itching, rashes, and pain while the medication clears up the underlying infection.  

If you find yourself developing yeast infections regularly, your doctor may consider putting you on a regular dose of maintenance medication to prevent these infections from recurring, and will order tests in order to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms.  

Are There Home Remedies That Can Treat a Yeast Infection?

There are some home remedies that may be able to temporarily stop itching and minimize the growth of yeast. However, none of the frequently touted home remedies (including coconut oil, boric acid vaginal suppositories, and yogurt) are considered to be effective treatments.

How Can I Prevent a Vaginal Yeast Infection?  

In addition to aforementioned medical factors, certain lifestyle habits may make a person more likely to develop a vaginal yeast infection.

It’s recommended that people with vaginas wear breathable cotton underwear and avoid tight pantyhose or leggings that can limit airflow. It’s also suggested that people avoid introducing scented products to the vaginal area. This includes douches, sprays, bubble baths, pads, and tampons. Taking frequent hot baths, sitting in hot tubs, or staying in wet clothes for extended periods of time is also not recommended.  

Know When to Talk to Your Healthcare Provider 

If you think you’ve developed a yeast infection, you should make an appointment to talk to your healthcare provider — unless you’ve been treated for one in the past and know what to expect. Before your visit, make a list of your symptoms, as well as potential risk factors you think you may have, including new antibiotics or medications that you’re taking. 

Don’t have a doctor available that you can talk to? Carbon Health offers high-quality, judgment-free care that is accessible to everyone. We know that a relationship with a trusted healthcare provider is a key element of overall health, and we’re here to provide the incredible care you deserve. Book an appointment for an in-person or virtual visit today. 

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil

Aaron S. Weinberg, MD, MPhil, is Director of Program Development at Carbon Health and triple board-certified in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Internal Medicine.