Yeast infections are one of those common things that never seems to stop being taboo. I remember getting my first yeast infection in college and finding out the local pharmacy kept their Monistat locked in a glass case so you had to ask for it. I spent 10 minutes pacing the tampon aisle, trying to gather the courage to tell this random pharmacist that yes, I need medicine for my itchy lady junk. It’s not exactly a fun conversation.
Most women have had a yeast infection at some point in their lives—and some of us even get them chronically—but we still think of them as gross and hard to talk about. For those reasons, most of us don’t really know why we get these infections or how much we should worry about them. That’s why Berry reached out Mary Jane Minkin, MD, clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University and the author of A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Health, to get her take on the things women should know.
Here, her answers to some of the questions you’ve always had about yeast infections but were maybe too scared to ask.
1. Why do I even get yeast infections?
Yeast infections sound kind of gross, but they’re actually nothing to feel ashamed about. As Dr. Minkin explained, all women have yeast in our intestines and our vaginas, but for the most part it’s kept in check by acid-producing “good bacteria” called Lactobacillus. Infections happen when the good bacteria can’t keep the yeast under control. “There are certain things that can destroy the good guys, like taking antibiotics,” says Dr. Minkin. “Also, things that yeast really like, like sugar, can make them grow wildly. Diabetics whose blood sugars get out of control can end up with yeast. For some women, even just eating lots of sugar and carbs can foster the growth of yeast.”
2. Do I need to go to the doctor?
The majority of yeast infections are easily treated with over-the-counter meds like Monistat. The tricky part is making sure you actually have a yeast infection. “There are many conditions that can masquerade as a yeast infection,” says Dr. Minkin. “Some women who think they have a yeast infection may have another type of vaginosis, such as bacterial vaginosis. Or, they may have irritation from a soap or detergent.” Go ahead and buy some OTC cream, she says, but definitely call a doctor if one treatment doesn’t work.
3. I saw some natural remedies on Pinterest. Do any of those work?
A lot of people online claim yeast infections can be cured by things like essential oils, coconut oil, or even inserting a clove of garlic into your vagina, but Dr. Minkin says there’s little to no data supporting those claims. Instead, she says, focus your efforts on restoring and maintaining the balance of good bacteria. “Avoiding a lot of sugar usually helps,” she explains. “And trying to replenish the body with good bacteria—women can take an over the counter product like Rephresh Pro-B, which has a lot of lactobacilli, which will help recolonize her with the right bacteria to naturally fight yeast.” Another high-quality probiotic: Garden of Life® RAW Probiotics Vaginal Care.
4. Can I spread my yeast infection to my partner?
Yeast infections aren’t considered communicable, and there’s very little evidence to suggest they’re easily “spread” from one person to another via sexual contact, regardless of whether your partner is male or female. You only develop a yeast infection when your body can’t keep it’s yeast population from proliferating, so unless someone is immuno-compromised, there’s little danger in simply coming into contact with yeast. Dr. Minkin explains, “Sexual transmission is unlikely. I have taken care of a very rare patient who has non-stop yeast, and I treated their partner to eliminate any sort of ‘ping-pong effect,’ but that situation is quite unusual.”
5. Can a yeast infection be caused by an STD?
Yeast infections aren’t usually a sign of any serious issues, but if they’re frequent and not easily treated, something might be up. “If a woman keeps on having yeast infections, I would be worried that she might be diabetic, or even have HIV,” says Dr. Minkin. But, she clarifies, that would only happen in the most extreme cases. “I’d check for both diabetes and HIV, but only after I have documented with repeated cultures that she truly has yeast,” she says.
6. What if it doesn’t go away?
A yeast infection isn’t going to be the thing that takes you down, but it is important to see a doctor if it keeps coming back or over-the-counter meds aren’t working. Says Dr. Minkin, “If a woman is really uncomfortable, I’d suggest she see her provider—not that I’m worried about serious consequences, but because there are options we can try, like oral medications to kill the yeast.” Lifestyle changes, like certain dietary modifications, wearing Spanx less often, or stress reduction, can also be beneficial.
Bottom line: Yeast infections are annoying, but they’re nothing to be ashamed of, so don’t be too nervous or too embarrassed to speak up.