A Personal Guide to Yeast Infections and How to Prevent Them
What causes yeast infections?
Each organ system in the body that is exposed to the outside world (i.e. skin, mouth, gut, vagina) has a colony of organisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi) ideally co-existing harmoniously. This family of organisms is called the “flora.” When the flora becomes imbalanced for any reason, an infection can likely follow. One of the most commonly seen vaginal tract infections is our “friend,” the yeast infection. Yeast infections are medically termed vulvovaginal candidiasis because the culprit is a yeast (a type of fungus) named Candida. Candida normally lives peacefully inside the body, in the vagina, and on the skin in low amounts without causing any issues. Certain factors, however, can cause the fungus to multiply, at which point many people become symptomatic and experience infections.
Do I have a yeast infection?
Signs of a vaginal yeast infection include itching, burning, soreness, and discomfort. The vulva (external visible part of the female genitals) will usually appear red, swollen, irritated, and tender to touch. Other symptoms can be pain during sex and burning during urination. These signs and symptoms are most often experienced along with a change in vaginal discharge that appears white and thick, like cottage cheese. One thing that is NOT characteristic of a yeast infection is a change in discharge odor. Change in odor is often a sign of a different type of infection. Overall, it is usually easy to diagnose yourself with the occasional yeast infection based on your symptoms.
So, how do I PREVENT yeast infections?
Keep the perineum clean
Perineum is the medical term for the area between the vagina and anus. Because Candida is often found living in the gastrointestinal tract, it only has a short distance to travel from the anus to reach the vagina. If you’re not careful to keep the area clean when wiping, wearing thongs, and after exercising, then it’s easy for Candida to migrate across this area and cause a yeast infection. Keep the area clean with gentle, pH balanced wipes to prevent extra yeast from ever reaching the vagina.
Avoid harsh soaps
While it’s beneficial to keep everything clean, using harsh soaps will do more harm than good. Remember, the vagina itself is a beautifully designed, self-cleansing system that doesn’t need help from soap. In clinics, we often have patients who feel they need to clean extra because of their normal discharge. This leads to vigorous cleaning with harsh soaps. This disrupts the pH balance, kills good vaginal bacteria, and leads to overgrowth of bad bacteria and yeast. This leads to yeast infections which then leads to more cleaning and turns into a painful and vicious cycle. To prevent this, use a gentle, unscented, pH balancing cleanser ONLY on the vulva (external genitals) and never inside the vagina.
Supplement with probiotics
Probiotics are living organisms, sometimes called “good bacteria” that have been encapsulated and can be used as supplements to provide health benefits. In short, probiotics can increase the number of good bacteria in your body, so they can fight off yeast and other harmful pathogens. This has extra importance during and after any course of antibiotics because probiotics assist in rebuilding the good bacteria. Additionally, there are numerous other benefits to probiotics including a healthier digestive tract and increased immunity to infections.
Be careful choosing lubricants
Harsh lubricants that are scented and have unknown ingredients can lead to an imbalance in vaginal pH. Choose an FDA approved lubricant that is water-based, scent free, and gentle enough for the vaginal area. It is important that your lubricant is pH balanced to match the vaginal environment and free of harsh chemicals, so you don’t increase your risk of yeast infections.
Go commando at nighttime
One of the simplest ways to prevent yeast infections is to sleep without underwear. Tight underwear made of synthetic material creates a moist environment which is perfect for bacteria and yeast to grow and multiply. Choose a loose cotton underwear or go commando at nighttime, so your vagina has a chance to breath and regulate bacteria.
Try to decrease stress levels
Increased levels of stress for prolonged periods of time can increase cortisol levels in your blood. If maintained for too long, this can weaken your immune system which puts you at risk for yeast infections and other types of illnesses. Aiming to maintain a balanced lifestyle with exercise, nutrition, and possibly mood supplements can assist in lowering stress levels. This in turn can help your body fight away yeast infections.
Maintain blood-sugar balance
Candida is a yeast and yeast feed off sugar. This is one reason that many people with uncontrolled diabetes have recurrent yeast infections. So, keeping a low-sugar diet can play a beneficial roll in decreasing the number of yeast infections you experience.