In their lifetime, 75% of women will experience some kind of vaginal infection, such as a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis (1), and more than half of those who experience this will get the infection again at some point (2). With these odds, every woman should know about the signs and symptoms of a vaginal infection as well as the methods to heal and protect themselves.
Consider the following seemingly innocent scenarios:
All these scenarios could lead to several symptoms such as foul-smelling vaginal discharge and/or intolerable itchiness in the vagina and/or vulva that signify a vaginal infection.
For those who have experienced repeated vaginal infections, or if you are a healthcare professional, you probably recognized the scenarios and knew a vaginal infection was looming. Wearing a wet swimsuit for long periods of time, eating too much sugar, and wearing tight and damp pants after a workout all threaten to disrupt the vagina’s system of healthy bacteria that fight off infection (3). Additional risk factors for vaginal infections include the lifetime number of sexual partners (4), pregnancy, and uncontrolled diabetes (5). When this balance between the good bacteria and bad bacteria (or fungus) is disrupted, an infection may occur.
While yeast infections typically do not cause any long-term damage, they are uncomfortable and the treatment may take a couple of days to start working. If you are trying to conceive, the biggest pitfall of having a yeast infection is that intercourse is not recommended -- though you may not feel like having sex anyway until you are healed -- and it may cause you to miss your fertile window for that cycle.
If you really don’t want to miss your fertile window even with a yeast infection, take into consideration that sex with a yeast infection may not only be painful or uncomfortable, but it can also cause the infection to last longer or recur after treatment or even be transmitted to your partner, though that is rare (5).
Can I still get pregnant while with a yeast infection?
You can still get pregnant when you have a yeast infection, however, some creams used to treat the infection may make it more difficult for the sperm to travel to the egg. Intercourse is not recommended in general 1) because it’s too painful and 2) while rare, you may give it to your partner and then your partner will keep giving it back to you (6).
Can a yeast infection heal on its own?
Yeast infections rarely heal on their own, but prescriptions from your doctor and over-the-counter medications are effective for treating yeast infections. Some even use natural alternatives with good results, though these methods have not been studied (7). Always go to the doctor before attempting to self-treat because many who think they have yeast infections actually have bacterial vaginosis (BV). Yeast infections are the second most common infection, while BV infections are the most common. (8)
Even more common than a yeast infection is bacterial vaginosis (BV). While yeast infections are an overgrowth of yeast (fungus), BV is caused by bad bacteria which flourishes when the vaginal pH is elevated, meaning it is alkaline, or basic versus acidic. About 50% of women infected with BV have no symptoms, but when symptoms do present, they can be similar to yeast infections such as itching, burning, and clumpy or foul-smelling discharge. There are more serious health consequences of BV compared to a yeast infection (9).
Why you need to see your doctor for BV:
Complications from BV are not common, but they are possible. If BV is left untreated and does not heal on its own, BV can spread to the reproductive organs and may lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which may also increase your chances of becoming infertile. If a woman develops PID because of infection with BV, an ectopic pregnancy is more likely. BV during pregnancy can also lead to complications including premature birth and low birth rates (10).
If you do end up using over-the-counter medication for a yeast infection, and it turns out you have BV, your BV symptoms may get significantly worse. Your doctor will likely give you a prescription for antibiotics to treat the BV infection.
Can I still get pregnant while having a BV infection?
When it comes to intercourse, the same principles apply as to yeast infections. Please check out the Mayo Clinic’s recommendations on having sex when experiencing a vaginal infection. Since the side effects of a BV infection are more serious and can cause pregnancy complications, see your doctor to diagnose these issues and make sure the infection has cleared completely.
The best way to tell if you have a yeast infection, BV, other type of infection (or simply irritated tissue) is by going to your doctor for a test.
As previously mentioned, BV does not always have symptoms, but symptoms that do appear may be similar to a yeast infection: itchiness, burning, increased discharge, and painful intercourse. One major difference is the way the discharge will look and smell.
Yeast infections can cause an increase in white discharge that is characterized by a "cottage cheese" look. The discharge will either be odorless or have a yeast smell (think the smell of bread or beer). BV, on the other hand, may cause thin, white, or grayish discharge that coats the vaginal walls and has a distinctive and strong fishy odor (11).
So what if it’s Sunday and you have to wait until Monday afternoon to see your doctor? With a yeast infection or BV, every minute can be miserable, but here are some tips to ease the symptoms while you wait (12):
If you already track your cycle, you are ahead! Your knowledge of your normal cervical fluid will help you identify what is NOT normal; that means you’ll notice sooner when that vaginal fluid is actually discharge from an infection, and you’ll be able to take action sooner (14). This can include a visit to the doctor or changing certain habits that may encourage yeast to proliferate (see below). Also, the discharge from a vaginal infection can mask the true cervical fluid, so charting cervical fluid may be difficult at this time.
Some cases of BV or yeast infections may be accompanied by a fever (15) -- in which case you should see a doctor right away -- and that may affect your BBT. If you aren’t sleeping well because of a vaginal infection, this can also affect BBT. Mark these temperatures as questionable until your fever is gone or until you’re able to get at least 3 consecutive hours of sleep.
Cleaning up your diet and eliminating other habits such as using scented soaps may help to keep your vaginal pH and bacteria healthy. Here are several recommendations to prevent future infections:
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