Yeast Infections 101: Prevention, Signs & Treatments
Yeast infections are NO fun and, for some of us, can occur quite frequently. As my mother warned me years ago, once you get one, they like to come back again and again—major bummer. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce these pesky infections.
Wait. What’s a Yeast Infection?
At their core, yeast infections are an overproduction of a fungus, often candida albicans. Therefore, they aren’t viruses or bacteria and are not considered part of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), even though they can be spread through sexual activity. It’s normal to find candida in small amounts on the human body, but if it starts to grow, it can cause multiple problems.
Though yeast infections can occur across the body (including the back, legs, etc.), this article will focus mostly on vulvas/vaginas and penises. It’s important to note that yeast infections happen in both natal (born with it) and neo (constructed after birth) vaginas.
Check out the following symptoms, causes, and remedies.
Itch → For many of us, one of the most common and easiest to identify symptoms is the itching. The first time I got a yeast infection, I remember shaving furiously because I thought the itch was being caused by pubic hair growth. After two days of shaving a very hairless pubic area, I realized the itch was coming from around the clitoris, lips and internally—aka, definitely not hair and very difficult to scratch.
Pain/redness/rash → Sometimes yeast infections can cause pain and redness or rashes. For those with vulvas/vaginas, this can occur around the clitoral glans (the tip) and hood, as well as in the vaginal opening and canal. This is why penetrative sex can feel quite painful and raw if experiencing a yeast infection. For those with penises, this also occurs around the glans (head/tip) and urethral opening and may cause shiny white patches to appear.
White discharge → For nongenital areas, you might see discoloration patterns that indicate a yeast infection. For vaginas and penises, it’s common to experience a thick, white discharge. For some people it can almost look comparable to cottage or cream cheese, but it can also be white and fluffy/frothy. You’d see evidence of this around the vaginal opening, clitoral hood, urethral opening, and, for those with uncircumcised penises, trapped in the foreskin. On the flipside, vaginal discharge may also be watery during a yeast infection—oh confusing variation.
Burning during urination → This is a symptom that overlaps with a urinary tract infection which would be caused by bacteria in the urethra rather than an overproduction of yeast. If not experiencing itchiness and discharge as well, make sure to go to a doctor to get properly diagnosed.
Sugar consumption → That’s right—your ice cream, chocolate, and even smoothie consumption may be contributing to your likelihood of developing a yeast infection. This is because yeast eats sugar. My first yeast infection occurred when I was visiting France at 16 years old. All of the breakfast buffets had Nutella, a delight of the world I had never tried before. After eating multiple packets a day, I was a miserable itchy goner. To this day, I have to be careful about my sugar intake because my body’s yeast seems to have a good memory.
Alas, the mouth is not the only way to consume sugar. You NEVER want to expose a vulva or vagina to sugar directly. Repeat after me, “no sugar near the vulva.” This means not only avoiding using chocolate, syrup, etc. in that area, but also if someone is eating something sweet, and then wants to go down on a vulva, send them to rinse out their mouth or incur the wrath of a hella angry infection. I may have had an unfortunate situation with a cinnamon bun loving lover – learn from my mistakes.
Damp/moist locations → Folks may have been warned about hanging out in wet bathing suits when growing up. Yeast infections are the reason. Vaginas are already damp spaces because of discharge but leaving the vulva or penis exposed to additional moisture can increase your chances of multiplying yeast. Because of this, those with uncircumcised penises are at higher risk of developing yeast infections because they are likely to breed below the foreskin. Moral of the story: listen to your elders and change into dry clothing after swimming or exercising.
Contact with an infected person → Because a yeast infection is simply the overproduction of yeast, contact with someone who has an infection can lead to spread. This is probably the most common way that penises contract yeast infections. If you do come into unprotected contact, especially if you have foreskin, quickly wash the area to discourage the yeast from settling and growing. I let my partners know if I start to experience what I call a “tickle” so they can wash up after a potential exposure.
Other → The ecosystem of vaginas includes a delicate balance of bacteria and fungus that can be disturbed by a number of things that either increase fungus (or sugar) or decrease bacteria. These include antibiotics, diabetes, HIV and other autoimmune conditions, pregnancy, birth control, and douching. The first three also affect those with penises. Before taking any antibiotics, I have learned to load up on the following preventative measures as a precaution.
Treatments, Remedies, and Prevention
Because yeast infections are caused by an imbalance of fungus and bacteria, the treatments, remedies, and prevention tools all seek to restore or maintain balance.
*Warning: Most of these are remedies I use that are not necessarily FDA approved. It is important that you listen to your body and don’t do anything that doesn’t feel good.
Prescribed or over the counter medication → If you visit a doctor, they will prescribe medication you can take, either in pill form or as an antifungal cream for topical or insertion use. I often actually feel more itchy soon after taking the pill and don’t know if they quite work for me. The antifungal creams tend to feel more soothing but can be annoying as what comes up must come down so if you insert the cream vaginally, you’ll want to remain horizontal for a long time to avoid it just all falling back out.
Coconut oil → Has antifungal properties and is being explored as a potential way to address yeast infections. This can be applied topically or by soaking a tampon in coconut oil for insertion. I use it if I feel any slight itch to avoid a full yeast infection. I find that my body experiences almost instant relief when I use this method.
Tea tree oil → Do not apply without diluting. Tea tree oil also has antifungal (and antibacterial) properties but is dangerous if applied directly to skin. For particularly bad cases, I create a mixture of coconut oil with a couple of drops of tea tree oil for topical and insertable use. Please use with caution.
Reduce sugar & dairy → This includes obvious items like ice cream but also fruits and cheese. Maintaining a low sugar diet can be particularly helpful if you experience frequent infections. As a garlic lover who experiences frequent yeast infections, I don’t believe garlic makes much of a difference but I’d be remiss not to mention that some people swear by consuming it as a way to address fungal growth even though there is no scientific evidence for this treatment.
Probiotics → Probiotics are composed of helpful bacteria that can help restore (or maintain) balance when there are too little bacteria and too much fungus.
Cotton underwear/no underwear → Underwear comes in many materials, some of which are “non-breathable” or non-porous. By using cotton underwear, or no underwear, your genitals have more access to fresh and dry environments which reduces likelihood of infection. During this Covid-19 era, I have been experiencing far fewer yeast infections, despite my incredible volume of ice cream eating. One possible reason might be the increased naked time being indoors has offered. Give it try!
Orgasm & Menstrual Bleeding → I haven’t seen much about this but as someone with a vagina, if I am able to orgasm during a yeast infection (assuming my clitoris isn’t experiencing pain), it almost feels like the vaginal secretions flush out some of yeast. Unlike the other suggestions, this one is completely based upon my own experiences.
Just like many other conditions, symptoms vary, and you may or may not have symptoms at all. The way yeast infections are officially diagnosed is through visual examination and/or by taking a swab of genital secretions and checking for level of yeast activity under a microscope. Many of us can easily recognize the symptoms ourselves, but they can also sometimes be confused with bacterial vaginosis (BV). While some of the treatments overlap, such as increasing good bacteria, they can also differ, such as taking antibiotics to treat BV. Therefore, if unsure, it’s best to seek professional help.
You can follow Yael @yaelthesexgeek on Instagram for more educational tidbits or email her at [email protected] for collaborations!
Yael R. Rosenstock GonzalezSex Educator, Researcher, Author, Speaker
Yael has been engaged in workshop development and facilitation since she joined the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) as a teen peer reproductive rights educator at 15 years old. Since then, she has served as an educator with children ranging from 10 months old to adults in their 70s with different organizations and communities. In her work as first Program Coordinator, then Director of Programming, and finally Associate Director of the Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding, Yael developed and led events, workshops, and programs with an intersectionality lens.