Fungal infection of the vagina (vaginal thrush) can make itself noticeable as itching, burning, or discharge. In many women, the external genital organs such as the labia are inflamed. Sometimes a fungal infection of the vagina does not cause any symptoms at all.
In the case of vaginal thrush, yeasts have multiplied in the vagina and caused inflammation. Yeast infections, along with bacterial infections ( bacterial vaginosis ), are among the most common causes of inflammation of the vagina and the external genital organs.
In certain phases, women are particularly prone to a fungal infection of the vagina – for example during pregnancy. However, a weakened immune system and the use of certain medications can also increase the risk of vaginal thrush.
Often a short treatment with vaginal suppositories or creams is enough to let the fungal infection subside. Sometimes tablets are also useful.
Typical symptoms of a fungal infection are itching, an uncomfortable burning sensation, and pain. The mucous membrane of the vagina is red and coated with white. Symptoms may worsen a few days before your menstrual period. If the inflammation has spread to the external genital organs, for example, the labia are red and swollen.
A vaginal thrush often leads to white-yellow discharge from the vagina. It can be watery or crumbly and resemble curdled milk. Sexual intercourse while infected can be painful. If the urethra becomes infected, it will hurt to urinate too.
Causes and Risk Factors
Fungal infections of the vagina are mainly caused by yeast, more precisely by the pathogen Candida albicans. Although these fungi are part of the natural vaginal flora, they are usually only found in small numbers. Then they do not cause any discomfort.
However, vaginal flora can become unbalanced – for example, due to pregnancy or medication.
The level of estrogen in the body is particularly high during pregnancy. This can change the vaginal flora and promote a fungal infection of the vagina. The birth control pill changes the hormonal balance similar to pregnancy. Therefore, women who take birth control pills are also at an increased risk of vaginal thrush.
Certain diseases can also make the vagina fungal, for example, diabetes mellitus and other diseases that weaken the immune system. In addition, various drugs can promote vaginal thrush: These include antibiotics, cortisone, and hormone, radiation or chemotherapy. Stress, excessive intimate hygiene, synthetic and tight-fitting clothing, sweating, and the use of airtight panty liners or sanitary towels also increase the risk of a fungal infection. Then the mushrooms can multiply and cause inflammation.
Another possibility is contagion. A lot of yeasts get into the vagina from the outside – for example through sexual intercourse with a man who has a fungal infection of the glans.
Frequency and course
Vaginal yeast infections are the second most common cause of vaginal infections after bacterial infections. Up to 75 out of 100 women have vaginal thrush at least once in their life. Most often, the infection occurs in women of childbearing age. If women after menopause get a yeast infection, this may be related to the use of medication, such as with estrogen-containing agents.
Often the symptoms are not very pronounced, sometimes they are completely absent. There are seldom severe symptoms. Then more intensive treatment is necessary. This also applies if the infection occurs several times a year or if it is caused by an immune deficiency.
If the vaginal mucous membrane is inflamed or the itchy skin in the area of the labia is scratched, other pathogens can settle more easily and worsen the symptoms. The inflammation can easily spread to closely adjacent tissue, such as the urethral orifice.
Serious complications are very rare and are usually related to a weakened immune system, for example from cancer treatment or an AIDS disease. The inflammation can then increase and spread.
In pregnant women, vaginal infections can slightly increase the risk of complications such as premature labor, miscarriage, and premature birth. The child can also become infected during birth. Then the yeast can cause inflammation of the oral mucosa or diaper rash in the newborn, for example.
Reproductive system diseases are embarrassing for many people. This could result in a woman postponing treatment or not telling her sexual partner about it. This means that she can deal with fungal infections for longer and infect others.
As a rule, vaginal thrush can be recognized by the symptoms and visible changes in the vaginal lining. If in doubt, the gynecologist will take some vaginal fluid and examine it for yeast.
If you have frequent yeast infections or severe symptoms, additional tests may be necessary. They should show whether certain risk factors are present, such as an immune deficiency. If a woman keeps getting yeast infections, it can make sense to have her partner checked out.
If the immune system is weakened, antifungal medicines may be useful to prevent fungal infections. Some women also use antifungal medicines as a preventive measure during antibiotic therapy. Whether this prevents a yeast infection from the vagina has not been well researched. No special prevention is necessary for otherwise healthy women. In order to avoid becoming infected with a sick partner, you should wait until the infection has subsided before having sex.
Some women use special probiotics supplements. They are taken or inserted into the vagina and are intended to support the natural vaginal flora. However, whether this can prevent fungal infections has not been well researched.
Some methods do more harm than good: Women should avoid flushing the vagina or intimate sprays. As a result, the natural vaginal flora is damaged and infections are favored.
Usually, a treatment that uses an applicator to insert an antifungal medicine into the vagina as a suppository or as the cream is enough to allow it to act on the inflamed mucous membrane. The recommended duration of treatment varies depending on the preparation but is usually only 1 to 6 days. Burning or itching can occur as a side effect.
Some active ingredients can also be taken once as a tablet. However, interactions with other drugs and side effects such as nausea, diarrhea or headaches are then possible. In addition, antifungal medication is not recommended for pregnant women.
In the case of severe complaints, frequently recurring infections or an increased risk of complications – such as an immune deficiency – medical advice is useful. For example, it may then be necessary to take antifungal tablets for several months. Co-treatment by the partner is usually not necessary. It is done when it is established that he or she also has a genital yeast infection.
Other treatment options are suppositories or capsules with live lactic acid bacteria ( probiotics ). They are supposed to protect the vaginal flora and restore its balance. However, the benefits of these agents have not yet been sufficiently proven.
Some women also introduce tampons soaked in tea tree oil or garlic, for example. Others use natural yogurt to acidify the vaginal environment. However, it has not been investigated whether such home remedies are effective and safe. Possible risks could be allergic reactions or irritation of the mucous membrane.
Flushing the vagina is never a good idea because it can increase inflammation.