Vaginal infections like bacterial vaginosis (BV) and yeast infections are some of the most prevalent women’s health concerns. In the United States, more than 1 million women experience yeast infections each year.
This overgrowth of yeast in the vagina can cause serious discomfort, including burning, itching, redness, and white discharge. When left untreated, yeast infections can lead to serious complications. Several prescription and over-the-counter antifungal medications can effectively treat vaginal yeast infections, and emerging research suggests that probiotics may also be helpful to promote vaginal health.
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In this article, I’ll describe the common symptoms and causes of yeast infections as well as what probiotics are and how they’re used. Then I’ll cover prescription, OTC, and other natural yeast infection treatment options. Finally, I’ll describe when it’s important to reach out to your provider to determine if you have a yeast infection and if probiotics may be right for you.
What Is a Yeast Infection?
A yeast infection, or candidiasis, is a fungal infection that occurs when too much yeast grows in a specific area of your body.
Yeast (which is a type of fungus) normally lives in many places within the body. One type of yeast that lives in the digestive tract, mouth, and vagina is candida albicans. When it’s in balance with the other natural flora in your body, candida does not cause any problems. But when candida overgrows, it can cause an infection.
A vaginal yeast infection, vaginal candidiasis, and vulvovaginal candidiasis are all the same thing: an overgrowth of yeast in the vagina. Vaginal yeast infections are a type of vaginitis, a condition that refers to an inflammation of the vagina. Yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis (BV) are among the most common types of vaginitis.
Symptoms of a yeast infection
Yeast infection symptoms can be mild or moderate and most often include:
- An itching sensation in the vulva or vagina
- Thick, white, odorless vaginal discharge that has the consistency of cottage cheese
- Redness or swelling of the vagina and/or vulva
- Cuts or cracks in the skin of the vulva
- Vaginal pain or soreness
- Burning during urination
- Pain during intercourse
- Vaginal rash
Causes of a yeast infection
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Several things can cause yeast to multiply, creating an imbalance in the vaginal microbiome. Some of the most common causes are:
- Antibiotic medications: These antimicrobials are excellent at killing harmful bacteria that cause infections. Unfortunately, antibiotics also kill beneficial bacteria, which can throw off the balance of the microbiome. When this happens in the vagina (such as when you take antibiotics to treat a urinary tract infection (UTI), it can result in a yeast infection.
- Hormonal changes: Pregnancy, menstruation, and the use of hormonal contraceptives (like the birth control pill) or hormone or estrogen therapy cause hormone levels and the balance of yeast in the vagina to shift.
- Diabetes: Elevated levels of sugar in your urine and vagina can encourage the growth of yeast in this area.
- Weakened immune system: Living with a chronic disease (such as HIV) or using medication that suppresses your immune system (such as chemotherapy) can cause vaginal yeast to grow.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are living microbes that provide health benefits. Hence, some people think of them as “good bacteria”. They are available through food (such as yogurt with live cultures) and supplements.
There are many different probiotics, and each may have different benefits. For example, lactobacillus strains may be helpful in the prevention and treatment of yeast infections. And, of the more than 120 species of lactobacillus, at least 12 are used as probiotics. So consider talking with your doctor, who can help you select the right probiotic for the condition you want to treat.
Probiotics for Yeast Infections
If you’re taking an antibiotic or experience chronic yeast infections, probiotic supplements may help prevent a yeast infection or even treat an existing one. Lactobacillus, the main bacteria found in healthy vaginal flora, may be especially effective at improving symptoms of a yeast infection and balancing out the bacteria and pH level of the vagina.
Research (Do they actually work?)
To date, there’s limited research on the effectiveness of probiotics in preventing and treating vaginal yeast infections and recurrent yeast infections. However, emerging data suggests that probiotics, specifically lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and lactobacillus reuteri RC-14, may be an effective treatment and preventive option.
Here’s one reason why: Lactobacillus is the predominant bacteria in the vaginal microbiota, but levels decrease during vaginal infections like a yeast infection. Some studies have found that taking lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and lactobacillus reuteri RC-14 probiotics may work to boost lactobacillus levels, rebalancing the vaginal microbiome.
Ultimately, supplements are not FDA-regulated the way medications are, so quality and effectiveness cannot be guaranteed. Studies have shown that many of these products don’t contain the amount of probiotics stated on the label or, in some cases, don’t contain the probiotic at all.
Vaginal probiotics can be also found in suppository form. You insert these into your vagina using an applicator. There’s limited research on probiotic suppositories, so it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor first before inserting anything, including a probiotic, into your vagina.
Yogurt and other natural options
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Some natural options may provide relief from a yeast infection, but medical experts agree there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove if they’re effective treatment options. At this point, home remedies may be best for preventing new or recurring yeast infections:
- Practice good hygiene: Change out of sweaty or wet clothing or bathing suits as soon as possible.
- Wear cotton underwear: Cotton is breathable and absorbs moisture, which can help keep your vagina dry.
- Don’t put foods into your vagina: Using apple cider vinegar, tea tree oil, yogurt, avocado oil, or any other food in your vagina will likely cause more harm.
- Avoid scented products: Scented tampons, pads, bubble baths, and laundry detergents can disrupt the balance of bacteria in the vagina.
- Do not douche: The vagina is self-cleaning, so you never need to douche. Doing so can lead to a yeast infection or other vaginal infections.
How to Use Probiotics
Probiotic supplements may be taken orally with or without water or food. Probiotic suppositories should be inserted into the vagina using an applicator. Whichever you use, follow the directions on the package or from your doctor.
How Long Should It Take for Probiotics to Work?
How long it takes for probiotics to treat yeast infection symptoms varies, but data suggests that in most cases it may take a few weeks.
Though adverse reactions and side effects of probiotic use are rare, it’s highly recommended to seek treatment from a certified gynecologist before self-diagnosing or self-treating yeast infection symptoms. An inaccurate self-diagnosis may worsen your condition and cause unnecessary pain.
Other Options for Yeast Infection Treatment
Especially if it’s your first time experiencing symptoms, speak to a gynecologist or healthcare provider to determine whether you have a yeast infection before you try any type of treatment. Many of the symptoms of a yeast infection can also occur with other types of vaginitis, and you want to be sure you use the best treatment for your condition.
Effective treatments for a yeast infection include:
- Prescription antifungal medication: These creams, ointments, pills, and suppositories come in one-day, three-day, and seven-day strengths. Note that pregnant women should not take single doses of oral medication such as fluconazole (Diflucan).
- OTC treatments: Over-the-counter vaginal creams and suppositories, such as miconazole (Monistat), also come in one-day, three-day, and seven-day strengths. These products often have the same ingredients as prescription medications but in less concentrated amounts.
When to See a Doctor
Anytime you experience itching, unusual discharge, or burning around the vagina or vulva, it’s best to talk to your doctor to determine if you have a yeast infection or another type of infection. With the proper diagnosis, you can then determine the best treatment.
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