If you've ever suffered from a yeast infection, you're not alone—three out of four women will experience at least one in their lifetime. Then you're also familiar (maybe way more than you'd like to be) with yeast infection symptoms: redness, burning and swelling in the vaginal area, pain during sex and/or urination, and a thick, white discharge. For most women, these infections are a nuisance but can be treated easily with prescriptive anti-fungal creams, suppositories or tablets—or even over-the-counter medications. But for women who suffer chronic yeast infections, meaning four or more a year, treatment isn't so simple. A recurring "itch down there" is likely the result of medications and/or health issues. Here's what could be causing chronic yeast infections and what you can do about it.
Candida, a common type of yeast, is naturally found in the intestines along with healthy bacteria and enzymes that help to break down food. But some doctors believe that if you overload your diet with sugar and carbs (both of which yeast "feeds" off of), the level of yeast in the intestines can grow to an unhealthy level, causing everything from bloating, gas and bowl troubles to vaginal yeast infections and more.
Although "Chronic Candidiasis" or "Intestinal Yeast Infection Syndrome" isn't an official diagnosis and remains largely unrecognized in the U.S. (treatments are homeopathic, a.k.a. not FDA approved), books such as The Yeast Connection and The Yeast Syndrome have raised speculation that yeast in the intestines may be the cause of underlying health problems—vaginal yeast infections included.
Health tips: Some doctors suggest taking acidophilus tablets to help balance yeast levels and ward off infection. Other options: Eat yogurt with active cultures and cut sugary foods from your diet.
Birth Control Pills & Antibiotics
If you're on the pill and suffering from yeast infection symptoms, it might be time to reconsider your birth control choice. The pill messes with the hormone levels in your body, which can cause your natural bacteria levels to change. Normally, healthy bacteria help ward off yeast overgrowth, but if your "good" bacteria level decreases, you can wind up with recurring yeast infections. Talk to your doctor about alternatives, such as low-dose birth control pills or non-hormonal methods.
Prolonged use of antibiotics can also cause chronic yeast infections. Here's how it works: Antibiotics kill bacteria, so while they might be curing that sinus infection, they can also do away with healthy bacteria in the vagina—and poof, you've got yourself another yeast infection.
Health tips: Are you using antibiotics because you need them, or because you feel a sniffle coming on? Seek alternative treatments and when antibiotics are the only solution, ask your doctor to prescribe an oral anti-fungal medication called fluconazole (Diflucan). For natural treatments, eat yogurt with active cultures while you’re on antibiotics and/or take acidophilus tablets.
Weakened Immune System
No surprise here: Your immune system keeps your body in check and if it's not up to par, your body can't fight off infections as well—including an overgrowth of yeast. While serious illnesses that affect the immune system, such as HIV or cancer, can cause chronic yeast infections, so can excessive stress, lack of sleep and/or poor diet.
Health tips: As with all yeast infections, see your doctor for a full exam and discuss treatment options. If you suspect your lifestyle is causing recurrent yeast infections, de-stress with exercise; you'll sleep better and crave healthier foods. Also take vitamins along with acidophilus tablets, avoid using scented soaps and toilet paper, and wear cotton underwear.
Chronic yeast infections are sometimes a symptom of diabetes. It works like this: Diabetes ups blood sugar levels, providing the perfect environment for yeast to multiply. If you've been diagnosed with diabetes and have recurrent yeast infection symptoms, it could be a sign that your blood sugar levels aren't under control and you need medical attention.
Health tips: Don't panic. Just because you have chronic yeast infections doesn't automatically mean you have diabetes. However, discuss your symptoms with your doctor and be sure to mention any family history of the disease.
Even though yeast infections aren't considered STDs, you can spread one to your partner—and in return, he can give it back to you. Luckily, if you both get treated, there's a clear-cut end to your problem.
Health tips: Even if your partner isn't showing yeast infection symptoms, it's best that he see his doctor—and same goes for you. Also, abstain from sex while you're being treated, especially if you use suppositories or creams, since they can weaken latex.