Most women are bothered at one time or another by vaginitis -- the itching, burning, pain, and discharge that comes with a vaginal yeast infection. Yeast infections can be caused by a number of organisms, many of which inhabit the healthy vagina. One of the most common causes of vaginitis is the fungus Candida albicans. The annoying symptoms can include itching, discharge that has a "baked bread" odor, and reddening of the labia and, in some cases, the upper thigh.
While yeast infections can often be treated successfully at home, it's important to be sure that yeast is really the culprit. Infection with other types of organisms, which may require treatment with prescription medication, can often cause symptoms similar to those of a yeast infection.
If the discharge is foul-smelling, yellowish, and frothy, you may be infected by a one-celled protozoa called Trichomonas, or "trick." If you have a heavy discharge without much irritation and notice a fishy odor, particularly after intercourse, your symptoms may be due to a bacterial infection that doctors call "bacterial vaginosis." Indeed, bacterial infections are the most common cause of vaginitis. Both of these infections require treatment with prescription medication.
Many women who suffer from recurrent yeast infections have had their symptoms diagnosed by a doctor and know all too well the signs and symptoms of a yeast flare-up. If you're sure your vaginitis is caused by a yeast infection, you may want to try the home remedies in the next section.
1: Stay Dry and Loose
Yeast organisms like warm, moist conditions, with little or no oxygen. In order to deny them the perfect growing medium, dry your vaginal area thoroughly after bathing or showering.
Opt for "breathable" cotton underwear and loose pants, and, if you must wear nylons, choose those that have a built-in cotton-lined panty. Also, avoid lounging around in a wet swimsuit; change into dry clothing as soon as you're done swimming for a time.
2: Practice Good Hygiene
The organisms that cause yeast infection produce secretions that are irritating to the genital tissues. The nerve endings that sense the presence of the yeast are located at the vaginal opening. Although you may have an infection inside the vagina, you can often get symptomatic relief simply by frequently washing away the secretions with water until your chosen treatment knocks out the infection.
While yeast is usually passed between sexual partners, it can also be passed to others, including children, through activities such as shared baths. To ensure you're not passing yeast, avoid bathing or sharing towels or bathwater with your children; wash your hands frequently -- and always after using the bathroom -- with soap and water; and wash your clothing in hot water. The high water temperature in your washing machine should destroy any yeast organisms on your clothes. But if you want to be sure they're all gone, add a cup of white vinegar during the rinse cycle.
You should also wash up extra carefully before lovemaking and should ask your sexual partner to do the same.
3: Avoid Harsh Soaps and Feminine Hygiene Products
Not only can the alcohol and other chemicals in these products cause irritation, but they could alter the pH balance of the vagina, allowing yeast to flourish.
Routine douching isn't a good idea if you don't have vaginal symptoms. However, for women with yeast-infection symptoms, a mild vinegar douche can help restore the vagina's normal pH (which is about 4.5). Douching with yogurt that contains live lactobacillus or acidophilus bacteria may help restore the friendly microorganisms lost during infection or as a result of antibiotic use. For the best douche results, follow these easy steps:
- Prepare the douche solution as outlined above.
- Make sure the container, tube, and irrigation nozzle are very clean. If not, clean them with a good antiseptic solution.
- Lie in the tub with a folded towel under your buttocks and with your legs parted. Suspend the container 12 to 18 inches above your hips.
- Insert the nozzle into your vagina with a gentle rotating motion until it encounters resistance (two to four inches).
- Allow the solution to flow in slowly. Use your fingers to close the vaginal lips until a little pressure builds up inside. This allows the solution to reach the entire internal surface. An effective douche should take ten minutes or so.
4: Use Yogurt
The live culture in plain yogurt is a great remedy for a yeast infection, helping to restore the acid-bacteria balance in more ways than one. Of course, you can eat yogurt. But you can also insert 1 to 2 tablespoons into your vagina, apply it externally to the affected area (anal or vaginal), or use it as a douche by diluting it with warm water.
Another alternative is to use lactobacillus tablets vaginally once or twice a day and douching with vinegar twice a day for two days. Check the natural-supplement aisle of your local pharmacy or a health-food store for the lactobacillus tablets.
5: Bring on the Boric
Several studies have shown boric acid to be a safe, inexpensive and effective yeast remedy. If your doctor approves of the idea, try using boric-acid capsules as a suppository the next time you have a flare-up. To make your own suppositories, fill size "O" gelatin capsules with boric acid. Insert one capsule vaginally once a day for a week. (Check with your pharmacist for the gelatin capsules and boric acid.)
Skip this remedy if you are or may be pregnant, however, since boric acid hasn't been studied among pregnant women. Instead, talk with your physician about other treatment options.
6: Try Over-the-counter Fungal Creams
Both miconazole (Monistat) and clotrimazole (Gyne-Lotrimin) are effective in treating yeast infections. These products, which used to be available only by prescription, are available over the counter in pharmacies and many variety stores.
Apply the medication as directed in the package insert. Complete the full course of treatment, as specified in the insert; do not stop using the medication early, even if your symptoms subside. If you find that you frequently get a yeast infection around the time of your menstrual period, try using one of these antifungal creams a few days before and/or after your menstrual period as a preventative.
7: Head to the Kitchen
Unsweetened cranberry juice may acidify vaginal secretions and equip them to fight off the yeast. Eating two fresh garlic cloves a day, either plain or minced and tossed in a salad or sauce, may also prevent yeast infections or help clear up a case of thrush. Garlic has antifungal properties.
For thrush, brush your teeth after every meal with a mild toothpaste of baking soda and water. Commercial toothpaste may be too harsh if sores develop. Pour a little baking soda in your hand and add just enough water to make a paste. Then, rinse with 1/2 cup warm water and 1 tablespoon of three percent hydrogen peroxide. Replace your toothbrush when the infection is cured.
8: Go Herbal
For thrush, make a basil tea and use it as a gargle. Boil 3 1/2 cups water, remove from heat, and add 1 1/4 teaspoons ground basil. Cover and steep for 30 minutes. Cool and gargle. Or sweeten to taste with maple syrup and drink 1 cup twice a day.
To relieve itching and burning, make a tea of rosemary, and use it as a douche or dab it onto the external area. Or make a thyme tea using 1 teaspoon dried thyme per 1 cup boiling water. Steep and drink 1 to 4 cups per day if you have a yeast infection.
9: Treat Both Partners and Rethink Contraception
Sexual partners can play "hot potato" with yeast infections, passing them back and forth, even if one of them has gotten treatment. Often, men harbor yeast organisms, especially in the foreskin of an uncircumcised penis, but show no symptoms. So when one partner is treated for a yeast infection, the other should be treated at the same time to avoid reinfection.
Couples who make love before a yeast infection has been completely cured should also use condoms during intercourse (even if another form of contraception, such as the Pill or an IUD, is being used) to act as a barrier and prevent passing the infection.
Women who take birth control pills also appear to be at increased risk for developing yeast infections. While researchers haven't established a cause-and-effect relationship between the Pill and yeast, some studies have shown that oral contraceptives increase the glycogen (the body's storage form of sugar) in the vagina (which provides more food for yeast reproduction).
Contraceptive sponges seem to be a yeast culprit, too, although no one is sure why. If recurrent yeast infections are a problem for you, consider an alternative birth control method such as condoms, a diaphragm, a cervical cap, or an intrauterine device (IUD); discuss it with your doctor.
10: Avoid Routine Douching
Women who douche frequently in the belief that it's a healthy practice may actually increase their risk for yeast infections by altering the vagina's pH balance. Routine douching is simply not necessary, since the vagina is able to clean itself.
Routine douching has been linked to an increased risk of pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID, an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes, or ovaries. PID can cause scarring of the fallopian tubes and result in infertility. If the infection spreads to the circulatory system, it can be fatal.
A 1990 study showed that women who douched three or more times per month were three-and-a-half times more likely to have PID than women who douched less than once a month. The symptoms of PID include fever, chills, lower abdominal pain or tenderness, back pain, spotting, pain during or after intercourse, and puslike vaginal discharge. In most cases, a woman does not show all of the symptoms listed. If you have any PID symptoms, consult a physician immediately.
Not only has routine douching been associated with an increased risk of PID, some researchers believe it may increase a woman's risk of developing cervical cancer.
The message is clear: While an occasional douche during an infection might be helpful, don't make a habit of douching.
For more yeast infection treatment information, see the links on the next page.
Lots More Information
- Herbal Remedies for Yeast Infections
- Alternative Medicines for a Yeast Infection
- 7 Home Remedies for Urinary Tract Infections
- Questions to Ask About Women's General Health
- Home Remedies Guide
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Timothy Gower is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in many publications, including Reader's Digest, Prevention, Men's Health, Better Homes and Gardens, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. The author of four books, Gower is also a contributing editor for Health magazine.
Alice Lesch Kelly is a health writer based in Boston. Her work has been published in magazines such as Shape, Fit Pregnancy, Woman's Day, Reader's Digest, Eating Well, and Health. She is the co-author of three books on women's health.
Linnea Lundgren has more than 12 years experience researching, writing, and editing for newspapers and magazines. She is the author of four books, including Living Well With Allergies.
Michele Price Mann is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Weight Watchers and Southern Living magazines. Formerly assistant health and fitness editor at Cooking Light magazine, her professional passion is learning and writing about health.
ABOUT THE CONSULTANTS:
Ivan Oransky, M.D., is the deputy editor of The Scientist. He is author or co-author of four books, including The Common Symptom Answer Guide, and has written for publications including the Boston Globe, The Lancet, and USA Today. He holds appointments as a clinical assistant professor of medicine and as adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.