The surface of the skin, as well as the digestive system and vaginal area, have a balanced mix of yeast, a type of beneficial fungus, and bacterium that prevents the overgrowth of harmful yeast and bacteria.
However, this balance can become disrupted. When too much yeast grows on your skin or in the digestive system, circulatory system, and genital areas, it can cause a yeast infection known as candidiasis.
Warm, humid conditions often the culprit
A yeast (or candida) infection is most often caused by an overgrowth of yeast in warm and humid conditions. The multiplication of the yeast cells causes redness and intense itchiness.
Yeast infections are usually harmless, but it's good to seek treatment
A yeast infection is usually harmless, but irritating, and can last anywhere from a few days to two weeks for more severe infections. Mild yeast infections can go away on their own, but it is always recommended to seek treatment regardless of the severity of the infection to prevent it from coming back.
Causes and risk factors for yeast infections
Besides warm and humid conditions, yeast infections can also arise from the following:
- Yeast infections can occur if skin gets damaged, or result from a weakened immune system.
- Taking antibiotics can also cause an overgrowth of yeast. That’s because antibiotics kill the skin and vaginal flora as well as the healthy bacteria in your body that normally keep the yeast in balance.
- A yeast infection can also be caused by uncontrolled diabetes, pregnancy, or taking oral contraceptives or hormones that increase estrogen levels.
Although anyone can get a yeast infection, those at higher risk for developing one include:
- Babies or incontinent adults wearing diapers.
- People getting cancer treatment.
- People taking antibiotics.
- People who wear dentures.
- People with large skin folds.
- People with other health conditions, such as HIV or diabetes.
Types of yeast infections
Yeast infections affect different parts of the body in different ways. The following types of yeast infections (candidiasis) are based on where they originate in the body, including:
Cutaneous candidiasis. Yeast infections of the skin, caused by a fungal infection in warm, moist areas on the surface of the body. It is often a result of diaper rash for infants and those who wear adult diapers.
Candidemia (invasive candidiasis). A life-threatening yeast infection of the bloodstream that occurs in some people who are at higher risk of infection due to a weak immune system. When the fungus enters the bloodstream, the disease spreads throughout the body. This can worsen critical illness and result in death if left untreated.
Thrush. Yeast infections of the mouth.
Esophageal thrush. A type of thrush that spreads through the mucous membrane into the esophagus (the tube connecting the mouth to the stomach).
Vaginal yeast infection (vaginal candidiasis). Caused by fungal overgrowth of candida albicans in the tissue that makes up the opening of the vagina, resulting in vaginitis (or candidal vulvovaginitis/vulvovaginal candidiasis). A vaginal infection is not considered a sexually transmitted infection.
Vaginal candidiasis is very common. An estimated 75% of women will have one infection in their lifetime.
Penile yeast infection. Similar to a vaginal yeast infection, the skin around the genital area as well as the penis have an overgrowth of candida fungus, often caused by poor hygiene or unprotected intercourse with someone who has a vaginal yeast infection.
Symptoms of different yeast infections
The symptoms of a yeast infection depend on where it appears in the body.
Angular cheilitis (corners of the mouth)
- Cracks or tiny cuts at the corners of the mouth.
- Redness or soreness of the mouth and throat.
- White or yellow patches on the tongue and inside of the cheeks.
- Chest pain.
- Dry mouth.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Pain or discomfort swallowing.
- Weight loss.
- White lesions in the esophageal lining that resemble cottage cheese.
Skin infections (near skin folds or belly button)
- Itching or burning.
- Patches that ooze clear fluid.
- Rash with redness and skin breakdown.
Cutaneous candidiasis (on the nail beds)
- A white or yellow nail that separates from the nail bed.
Candidemia (yeast infections of the bloodstream)
Vaginal yeast infection
- A rash on or around the vagina.
- Burning inside the vagina, especially during intercourse or urination.
- Itching and irritation in the vagina and vulva.
- Pain and soreness of the vagina.
- Redness or swelling of the vagine and vulva.
- Thick, white, odorless vaginal discharge that appears similar to cottage cheese.
- Watery vaginal discharge.
- Cracks in the vaginal wall (for severe infection).
Penile yeast infection
- A painful and itchy rash on the underside of the penis.
- Redness on the underside of the penis.
- Scaling on the underside of the penis.
How is a yeast infection diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and health history, which may include past infections and STIs.
Your provider will also give you a physical exam, part of which may include a pelvic exam to examine the external genitals for signs of infection and in some instances using an instrument to inspect inside the genitals.
For yeast infections of the vagina, a sample of vaginal fluid (secretion) may be sent for testing to determine the type of fungus that may be causing the infection.
The healthcare practitioner may scrape off a bit of skin or remove part of a nail and check it to confirm the diagnosis for yeast infections of the skin.
How is a yeast infection treated?
Yeast infections are often treated with the help of antifungal medication, medicated suppositories (a cone-shaped medication inserted into the vagina or rectum to administer treatment), or medicated creams. These medications are prescribed based on the location of the yeast infection.
- Oral and esophageal yeast infections are treated with antifungal medicine such as Nystatin or clotrimazole. For those with a weaker immune system, medicated mouthwash containing chlorhexidine may also be recommended.
- Yeast infections of the skin are prescribed an antifungal cream to be applied topically.
- Blood yeast infections can be treated with antifungal intravenous (IV) or oral medication.
- Vaginal yeast infections are treated with antifungal vaginal medicine such as miconazole (Monistat) over the course of 3-7 days. Such antifungal medication may also be available as types of vaginal cream, vaginal sprays, ointments, or a vaginal suppository.
- Penile yeast infections are treated with topical antifungal ointments (such as miconazole, imidazole, or clotrimazole) available as over the counter medications.
Questions and answers about yeast infections
If yeast infections are left untreated, they may lead to certain complications and exacerbated symptoms, as well as an increased likelihood of the yeast infection returning. Be sure to contact your healthcare practitioner right away if you have any signs or symptoms of a yeast infection, as this will make treatment and recovery faster and easier.
You may be at risk of a complicated yeast infection if you have any of the following conditions or symptoms:
- A weakened immune system due to medications or conditions such as an HIV infection.
- Four or more yeast infections within the past year.
- Severe infection caused by an atypical type of fungus.
- Uncontrolled diabetes.
Complicated yeast infections are still treatable, but may include a longer treatment protocol,. extra doses of medication, or long-term use of topical anti-yeast medicine for those with recurring yeast infections.
If standard treatment for a yeast infection is proving unresponsive, or if your symptoms have changed or gotten worse, it is possible you may have another condition.
Some skin conditions and bacterial infections can mimic the symptoms of a yeast infection. These include:
- Bacterial vaginosis. Bacterial overgrowth in the vagina is a more serious condition than a yeast infection, but it presents similar symptoms of burning, itching, and abnormal vaginal discharge.
- Hemorrhoids. Itching associated with hemorrhoids can also cause vaginal itching.
- Hormonal imbalances. A lack of estrogen in aging persons can cause the skin of the vagina to thin, leading to discomfort, itching, and discharge. This is often resolved with vaginal lubricant or a small dose of estrogen prescribed as a part of hormone therapy.
- Skin allergies. Sanitary and hygiene products can cause irritation and redness for those with sensitive skin. Sometimes irritation from shaving is also confused as a yeast infection.
- Other skin conditions. Some skin conditions such as eczema cause itching and redness on the surface of the skin. These often require a steroid ointment for treatment.
- Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). Some STIs such as herpes and genital warts cause irritation in the genital area and/or itchy vaginal discharge with a foul odor.
- Small wounds. Small cuts and scrapes cause skin irritation as they heal, and if they are small enough may be misconstrued as a topical yeast infection.
- Urinary Tract Infection (UTI). A bacterial infection of the urinary system that causes difficulty urinating and abdominal pain. This infection can happen simultaneously with a yeast infection or on its own. However, antibiotics are required to treat a UTI.
Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis and the proper treatment protocol, for yeast infections or otherwise.
If you often have yeast infections, it is likely you understand exactly what caused it, such as antibiotics. Whether or not you know the cause, take note of the following “do’s and dont’s” to combat recurrent yeast infections:
- Change from soiled or wet clothes into dry clothes quickly.
- Eat a well balanced diet high in fiber and low in sugar.
- Practice good hygiene, especially washing and brushing teeth.
- Replace sanitary hygiene products such as pads and tampons frequently.
- Take supplemental probiotics that contain lactobacillus, the bacteria that prevents yeast overgrowth.
- Wear natural, breathable fibers such as cotton, silk, or linen.
- Avoid wearing tight pants or stockings.
- Avoid scented hygiene products including deodorant, tampons, and pads.
- Avoid douching.
Yeast infections are common, but quick diagnosis and treatment help the discomfort and symptoms go away quickly. Take preventative measures against future infections, and talk to your doctor if you have recurrent symptoms.