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What is a yeast infection?
Yeast infections are a common type of vaginal infection, and they're especially common in pregnant women. These infections – also called monilial vaginitis or vaginal candidiasis – are caused by microscopic fungi in the Candida family, most commonly Candida albicans.
It's not unusual to have some yeast in your vagina as well as in your intestinal tract. Yeast only becomes a problem when it grows so fast that it overwhelms other microorganisms.
Higher estrogen levels during pregnancy make your vagina produce more glycogen, which then makes it even easier for yeast to grow there. Some researchers think estrogen may also have a direct effect on yeast, causing it to grow faster and stick more easily to the walls of the vagina.
You're also more likely to get a yeast infection when you take antibiotics, especially if you take them frequently or for a long time. That's because in addition to killing off the targeted bacteria, these drugs can affect the normal protective bacteria in your vagina, allowing yeast to overgrow.
What are the symptoms of a yeast infection?
If you develop symptoms from a yeast infection, they're likely to be bothersome (and may get worse) until you treat the infection, though sometimes they do come and go on their own. Symptoms may include:
- Itchiness, irritation, soreness, burning, and redness (and sometimes swelling) in your vagina and labia
- Odorless vaginal discharge that's often white, creamy, or cottage cheesy
- Discomfort or pain during sex
- Burning when you urinate (when the urine hits your already irritated genitals)
What should I do if I think I have a yeast infection?
If you think you have a yeast infection, see your healthcare provider. She'll take a sample of your vaginal discharge for testing. This can confirm the diagnosis and rule out other things that may be causing your symptoms.
If you do have a yeast infection, your provider will give you a prescription or recommend a specific over-the-counter antifungal vaginal cream or suppository that's safe to use during pregnancy.
You'll need to insert the cream or suppository into your vagina for seven days in a row, preferably at bedtime so it won't leak out. (The shorter-course regimens that you might have used before aren't as effective when you're pregnant.) It's also a good idea to apply some of the antifungal cream to the area around your vagina.
It may take a few days of treatment before you begin to feel some relief. In the meantime, you can soothe the itching with an ice pack or by soaking for 10 minutes in a cool bath.
Let your provider know if the medication causes irritation or doesn't seem to be working. You may have to switch to another medication. Be sure to complete the full course of treatment to make sure the infection is gone.
Why do I need to see my provider to treat a yeast infection?
It may seem like overkill to see your provider because antifungal medication is available over the counter, but it's not a good idea to try to diagnose and treat yourself. Studies show that most women who treat themselves for a presumed yeast infection miss the real cause. As a result, they often delay getting proper treatment.
Your symptoms may be caused by something else, such as a sexually transmitted infection, instead of or along with yeast.
Will a yeast infection affect my baby?
No, a yeast infection won't hurt or affect your developing baby. But if you have an infection when you go into labor, there's a chance that your newborn will contract it as he passes through the birth canal. If that happens, he may develop a yeast infection in his mouth, known as thrush.
Thrush is characterized by white patches on the sides and roof of the mouth and sometimes on the tongue. This condition isn't serious and is easily treated. (By the way, babies can get thrush even if you don't have a yeast infection.)
Can my partner get a yeast infection from me through sex?
It's rare, but sexual partners can pass a yeast infection to one another. Most experts don't recommend treating the partners of women with yeast infections because sex typically doesn't cause infection (or reinfection), and studies suggest that treating partners doesn't reduce the risk of a recurrence.
However, if either of you develops symptoms, see a healthcare provider for advice. In a male partner, symptoms can include redness, rash, itching, or burning. If a yeast infection develops, it's likely the provider will recommend abstaining from sex during treatment.
How can I reduce my chances of getting a yeast infection?
It's less likely you'll get a yeast infection if you keep your genital area dry (because yeast thrives in a warm, humid environment) and your vaginal flora in balance. Not all of the following suggestions are supported by hard evidence, but they're easy enough to do and worth a try:
- Wear breathable cotton underwear and avoid pantyhose and tight pants, especially synthetic ones.
- Try sleeping without underwear at night to allow air to get to your genital area. If you prefer to wear something to bed, a nightgown without underwear allows more air circulation than pajama bottoms.
- Don't use bubble baths, perfumed soaps, scented laundry detergent, or feminine hygiene sprays. It's not clear whether these products contribute to yeast infections, but it's best to avoid them because they can cause genital irritation.
- Clean your genital area gently with warm water every day. (Don't douche – during pregnancy or any other time.)
- Get out of your wet bathing suit promptly after swimming, and change your underwear after exercising if you break a sweat.
- Always wipe from front to back.
- Eat yogurt that contains a live culture of Lactobacillus acidophilus, which can help maintain the proper bacterial balance in your gut and vagina. There's conflicting evidence about whether yogurt helps prevent yeast infections, but many women swear by it. And in any case, it's a good source of protein and calcium!