Yeast infections occur when a fungus (or yeast) called candida albicans, which normally resides in the vagina, begins to multiply quickly for some reason. The result is uncomfortable itching and a white, odorless discharge that sometimes has the consistency of cottage cheese.
The yeast can begin to multiply for many reasons. High estrogen levels are one potential trigger. As a result, women who are pregnant, taking birth-control pills high in estrogen, or on estrogen-replacement therapy are more prone to yeast infections. So are women with diabetes, because yeast feeds on sugar and diabetics have high blood glucose (sugar) levels.
Yeast also thrives when your immune system is weakened—when you’re overly tired or stressed, for example. Antibiotics, which kill off the bacteria in the vagina that normally keep yeast in check, are another cause.
The good news is that yeast infections can be treated easily with any one of a number of over-the-counter preparations. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that safe self-treatment depends on an accurate diagnosis. So, the first time you experience vaginal itching and discharge, see a physician.
By examining a slide smear of your vaginal secretions and performing a culture, your doctor will be able to determine whether you do indeed have a yeast infection or whether you’re suffering from something more serious, such as a sexually transmitted disease.
Once you’re familiar with the symptoms of a yeast infection, it’s usually safe to self-medicate. But be sure to call your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms: burning or frequent urination, pelvic pain, a foul-smelling discharge or a strange-colored discharge.