Millions of women suffer vaginal yeast infections every year — including painful infections that re-emerge just when you think they’re gone for good. In fact, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), estimates show that around 75 percent of all women will have a vaginal yeast infection at some point in their lives!
What causes a vaginal yeast infection? You guessed it: yeast. But did you know that the same type of fungal yeast that grows outdoors on trees and plants is actually very similar to the type that can develop inside the body and lead to an infection?
While the type of yeast that causes vaginal yeast infections as well as candida symptoms can be completely harmless, at some point its levels can reach high enough to take over our body’s “good bacteria” and cause a vaginal infection or worse.
The good news is that there are several natural steps you can take to get rid of a vaginal yeast infection for good. Vaginal yeast infections can be treated naturally at home with supplements, essential oils, a nutrient-rich diet and probiotics.
What Is a Vaginal Yeast Infection?
The human body is home to millions of yeast organisms, many of which are considered “good” as far as our health is concerned. But the species of yeast responsible for causing yeast infections is a strain called Candida albicans, which can lead to a overgrowth known as candidiasis.
All strains of yeast are types of fungi, which technically aren’t plants at all because they don’t use chlorophyll (a type of energy that plants use from the sun in order to grow). Yeast and fungi are also unique and different from plants because they can actually make their own food, which is precisely how they multiply and spread within the body.
Vaginal yeast infections (also known as vaginal candidiasis, vulvovaginal candidiasis or candidal vulvovaginitis) are caused by the candid fungus. They are a type of vaginitis, which means inflammation or infection of the vagina. Vaginal yeast infections that keep coming back are known as recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis (RVVC). While there are a number of different health conditions that are categorized together under the broad term of vaginitis (including bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis and non-infectious vaginitis), vaginal yeast infections are the most common type.
Some women struggle with chronic vulvar pain known as vulvodynia. While this condition can be aggravated by yeast infections, and is sometimes mistaken for a yeast infection, it is a different condition that causes redness and burning of the vulva. The cause of vulvodynia is not well-understood, but there are treatment options available.
Yeast infections of all kinds tend to develop in areas of the body where conditions are most favorable for yeast and mold to reproduce easily. Yeast and fungus thrive in moist conditions, so damp “folds” of the body (think areas where you sweat a lot) are usually more prone to infections and outbreaks, including:
- the mouth and throat
- anal area
- navel (belly button)
- nasal cavity and around the nose
- within the ears
- fingernails and toenails
- in between fingers and toes
- digestive tract
When yeast overgrows in the vagina, symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection can develop, including:
- vaginal itching (sometimes very uncomfortable and severe)
- vaginal discharge that’s white, thick, clumpy and odorless (while not pleasant to visualize, some people describe it as looking like cottage or ricotta cheese)
- irritated skin around the opening to the vagina (vulva and labia), redness and swelling
- slight bleeding
- vaginal pain, especially during intercourse or during menstruation
- pain when going to the bathroom or when urinating
- sometimes a slight smell that’s unusual
Usually, yeast infections are obvious and somewhat uncomfortable, especially if left untreated, and the symptoms continue to worsen. However, some people don’t realize they have a vaginal yeast infection or mistake it for another problem, like a urinary tract infection, side effects from birth control pills or irregular periods, or a sexually transmitted disease, for example.
When candida yeast multiplies, it’s capable of spreading to different parts of the body and causing all types of problems. Just like you can experience a vaginal yeast infection caused by overgrowth of Candida albicans in the genitals, “candida virus” can take over your digestive system too. This is like a form of an internal digestive yeast infection and causes symptoms such as fatigue, digestive upset, changes in appetite or food cravings.
At any given time, many millions of yeast live within, and on the surface of, your body. While most yeast pose no threat at all to your health, a small percentage of yeast cultures are potentially harmful and capable of causing infections.
Common species of yeast especially thrive in damp places like the mouth, throat, nose, intestines and armpits. Yeast also live within our digestive systems, specifically in the internal lining of the bowel.
This is completely normal and, in fact, beneficial in some ways, since certain types of yeast help ensure that we have regular, normal poop. This is even true of candida yeast, which we all have in amounts that normally don’t cause any trouble when they don’t multiply rapidly and begin to crowd out other bacteria and microbes.
So where do things go wrong, and how does a vaginal yeast infection develop? When someone has a strong immune system that works properly, she’s able to maintain a balance between all different strains of microbes, allowing them to fight candida the natural way and stay healthy before a problem starts.
“Good bacteria” are capable of balancing “bad bacteria,” but this delicate balance can easily become upset when yeast begins to rapidly grow and take over.
Common causes of vaginal yeast infections include:
- after taking antibiotics (which wipe out some of the good bacteria)
- during pregnancy (due to high female sex hormone levels)
- when someone has a hormonal imbalance, uses hormone therapy or takes birth control pills
- following sexual intercourse
- when someone has an impaired immune system — for example, because of an autoimmune disorder or a virus like HIV, as your medications can suppress your immune system. Chemotherapy and radiation treatment for cancer can also suppress your immune system.
- around the time of a woman’s menstrual cycle (infections are more likely to occur during the week before a menstrual period or after a woman’s period, especially if she uses tampons)
- in people who have diabetes that’s uncontrolled
- due to poor hygiene, including dirty skin or wearing damp, dirty clothes
- having uncontrolled diabetes (high blood sugar impacts the bacteria in your pee)
How do you know if it’s a vaginal yeast infection? Vaginal yeast infection symptoms can be mistaken for other health problems, so if it’s your first time having one and you’re not 100 percent sure of the cause of your symptoms, you might want to talk to your health care provider.
There are at least six other conditions and diseases that can be mistaken for a vaginal yeast infection. These include:
- Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as chlamydia, trichomoniasis, herpes and genital warts. These infections can cause vaginal odor and an itchy discharge.
- Allergic reactions to feminine hygiene products, soap or even a new laundry detergent.
- Lack of estrogen causes the skin to thin, resulting in vaginal dryness and itching.
- Hemorrhoids may also cause itching in the vaginal area
- Other skin conditions
- Small cuts
Your health care provider can rule out other types of infections or disorders and give you a diagnosis on whether or not you have a vaginal yeast infection.
If you’re familiar with the symptoms of a vaginal yeast infection already, then you can easily treat the condition at home on your own. Keep in mind that around the time of your period, you’re more likely to get a vaginal yeast infection because menstrual blood can increase pH levels within the vagina and alter hormone levels, allowing for yeast to multiply more quickly. Sometimes getting your period can resolve a yeast infection, but not always.
Either way, it’s usually okay to wait a couple days before seeing a health care provider if you suspect a problem. But don’t wait more than a week if symptoms don’t go away. If you experience unexpected bleeding, see your primary care provider right away.
For a proper diagnosis, they will need to perform a pelvic exam. They might decide to run blood or culture tests to diagnose a vaginal yeast infection.
If you’ve received a positive diagnosis of a vaginal yeast infection, then your health care provider may give you a prescription for an oral antifungal medicine such as fluconazole (brand name: Diflucan). Or they might recommend an over-the-counter (OTC) cream to fight the infection.
If you decide to fight the infection on your own, chances are you’ll purchase a home kit from a drug store. Today, there are dozens of OTC treatments, including suppositories, antifungal creams and ointments available in stores. While some prescriptions can be helpful for stopping reoccurring infections, ultimately most creams reduce symptoms without addressing the root cause.
The way that yeast infections work is by yeast burrowing their “hyphae” deep under your skin or inside your body, which allows them to soak up nutrients and continue to survive. So if you only put creams and ointments on the surface of your skin, you’re missing a large percentage of the yeast that multiplies below, deeper within in your body. This is one of the reasons that some women have different forms of vaginitis and vaginal yeast infections over and over — because they don’t target all of the yeast and cut off its life supply.
Another recommendation from your doctor might be to take antibiotics; however, these also come with some risks. Avoid unnecessary use of antibiotics whenever you can, since they can wind up killing off good bacteria, in addition to bad bacteria, and lead to antibiotic resistance if overused. Once good bacteria are eliminated, it’s easier for yeast to grow in the future, and it also sets the stage for other infections to form since even a small amount of bad bacteria can easily multiply when uncontrolled.
1. Keep Your Skin Clean and Dry
Yeast can only multiply to harmful levels when the conditions are just right. The best way to stop yeast from spreading is to keep your skin clean, dry and free from scrapes or wounds. Practicing good hygiene and taking care of any open cuts properly helps prevent infections, whether in the vagina, digestive tract, mouth or elsewhere.
2. Wash the Genital Area
Make sure to wash the genital area with soap every day and dry off the area well after showering, since fungi are most commonly found in moist environments (which is exactly why they can thrive in leftover foods and damp areas outdoors, such as soil).
Following sexual intercourse, make sure to wash the genital area. It’s possible to spread yeast infections during sex from person to person, and even though women are much more likely to carry yeast infections, men (especially men who are uncircumcised) can develop yeast infections in the genital area, too. Always practice safe sex by using condoms, and abstain from sex altogether if you or your partner have an active infection.
3. Wipe Properly
When you go to the bathroom, you can decrease the risk for spreading germs by wiping from front to back (from vagina to your anus, instead of the other way around).
4. Wear Clean, Loose-Fitting Clothes
Make sure to wear clean underwear and, ideally, choose cotton underwear or another breathable fabric. Allowing air to reach your genitals helps stop moisture and warmth from developing, which worsens yeast growth.
You might also want to wear looser-fitting clothes and avoid stockings, tights or bathing suits if you’re prone to getting infections since these all increase body heat and retain moisture. When you do wear a bathing suit, try not to stay in one for too many hours, especially if the suit is wet or dirty.
5. Rule Out Allergies
Sometimes allergies to condoms/latex, soaps or other hygiene products such as bath oils, tampons, spermicidal jelly or douches can cause allergies and infections. Chemical products are irritating to the sensitive genital area and can negatively impact the balance of bacteria in your vagina. If you’ve recently started using new products and notice infections taking place, try switching up your products and use something more natural instead.
Also be careful about using products that cause vaginal irritation, such as those with chemical dyes, fragrances and other harsh ingredients. Avoid these potential yeast infection causes if possible. Luckily, there are usually readily available alternatives. For example, if tampons tend to cause infections, try using pads instead and always avoid fragrance-sprayed/deodorant tampons or feminine products.
Another word about douching — not only can douching cause allergic reactions, it can also alter the natural balance of good and bacteria within a woman’s vagina. This in turn can create an environment that allows candida to flourish, resulting in a yeast infection.
Douching can also lead to other health concerns, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, bacterial vaginosis, pregnancy complications and cervical cancer. There is no evidence that douching provides any real health or cleansing benefits. The body naturally cleanses itself and douches often cause more harm than good.
6. Consider Other Medical or Hormonal Problems
Certain pre-existing medical conditions can increase your susceptibility to vaginal yeast infections because they alter bacterial and chemical balances within your body. Two examples are hormonal imbalances (including kinds that cause high estrogen or progesterone levels) and type 2 diabetes.
You’re probably aware that diabetes is a condition in which blood sugar levels play a significant role, but did you know that sugar also fuels candida yeast growth? If you eat a diet high in sugar, or don’t manage your blood sugar properly, you give yeast more fuel to multiply.
When it comes to hormones, the female sex hormone progesterone can increase yeast infections in the vaginal area because it increases the production of glycogen, a natural starch that’s converted into sugar easily. Yeast can thrive off of these starch molecules, and because women have naturally higher progesterone levels than men, they’re more susceptible to yeast overgrowth.
Men can develop yeast infections, too. But female sex hormones make them much more likely, especially when hormones are significantly elevated during the second half of the menstrual cycle, during menopause, when a woman is taking birth control or when a woman is pregnant.
1. Boost Your Immune System with a Nutrient-Rich Diet
A diet that boosts your immune system can help your body stay in tip-top shape, greatly reducing the risk of an infection since an increase in protective white blood cells is able to target the problem before it worsens. This is the reason why a weakened immune system is one of the significant risk factors for recurring yeast infections. People with viruses like HIV, or autoimmune disorders, diabetes or cancer are all prone to developing infections more often.
Support your immune system by eating a nutrient-dense diet, especially one high in vegetables, healthy fats (including antimicrobial coconut oil), probiotics and quality sources of protein.
2. Consume Probiotic and Fermented Foods
Probiotic foods (including kinds that contain bacteria such as lactobacillus or acidophilus) are beneficial for fighting infections of all kinds and proven to be beneficial for yeast infections. Probiotics for vaginal health can help make the vagina healthier.
Fermented foods — including dairy products like kefir or yogurt, kombucha and veggies — all contain probiotic microflora that help to protect the intestines, improve the immune system and fight yeast. Probiotics are “good bugs” that compete with harmful pathogens in the body. The good kind of bacteria that live within your body and on your skin basically compete with candida yeast for available sources of “fuel.” Luckily, good bacteria are usually stronger than the yeast cells and therefore they can cut off the life supply of the yeast or fungi.
3. Reduce Sugar Consumption
When it comes to your diet, make sure to control your blood sugar since high levels of sugar feed candida yeast growth. Some people with candida overgrowth need to eliminate nearly all sources of sugar, at least for some time, while the condition clears up. This includes most processed foods or snacks, alcohol, most grains (especially refined grain products), conventional dairy products, and even fruit and starchy veggies in some cases.
It might take some trial and error to get the diet right since everyone reacts a bit differently. A positive side effect is that following a diet aimed at getting rid of yeast and candida can also provide beneficial bacteria, regulate your appetite, and reduce your cravings for refined carbohydrates and sugars.
4. Use Certain Supplements and Essential Oils
Certain supplements and essential oils are beneficial for stopping yeast in its tracks, including:
- Probiotic supplements: one of the best natural treatments for yeast infections because they replenish good bacteria
- Apple cider vinegar: helps balance pH levels
- Elderberry and milk thistle: help cleanse your liver from prescription medications and hormones from birth control pills
- Boric acid: a safe alternative to some prescription medications for the treatment of recurrent yeast infections
- Essential oils: tea tree, lavender and myrrh oils are gentle yet help eliminate a variety of yeast, parasites and fungi; use several drops mixed with coconut oil topically just outside of the vaginal area.